Bill Berkowitz: Laura-Palooza
Laura Bush's night on the raunch wowed the press and temporarily silenced the Christian right
By Bill Berkowitz
In less than a month's time, First Lady Laura Bush went from being riotous to nearly causing a riot. In her late-May visit to Jerusalem, both Jewish and Palestinian protesters had to be restrained by armed guards. A month earlier there wasn't a hint of restraint as the First Lady had the beltway press corps eating out of her hands.
L. Brent Bozell III, the founder and president of the Parents Television Council, a premier conservative media watchdog group, suggested that Laura Bush's performance at the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner in Washington, DC may have been "designed to loosen up the stuffy evangelical Christian image as the Washington press corps worries about a new American ayatollah under every bed..." "Edgy but not over the edge," was conservative columnist Michelle Malkin's verdict. The Washington Times' Suzanne Fields gave the First Lady's routine a "rave review." And the New York Times' Frank Rich called the performance "a harmless piece of burlesque" that "paid political dividends."
How extreme a makeover was the White House seeking when it sent Laura Bush up to pinch hit for her husband? Is Team Bush concerned that after the right's embarrassing performance in Florida during the Terry Schiavo Affair, the American people are beginning to see the administration as too in sync with the ever-widening and invasive religious right agenda? Has the normally reticent mainstream media begun to notice the broad theocratic underpinnings of the movement?
In an age when Texas legislators are considering legal action banning cheerleaders from performing "indecent" routines and wearing midriff-baring outfits; when an Alabama elected official proposes to ban books containing gay characters or written by gays or lesbians from all public facilities, when the Kansas Board of Education has renewed its almost-annual battle against evolution; and when Alaska's Republican Senator, Ted Stevens, intends that the FCC gain dominion over pay cable television networks in order to limit their "offensive" content, Laura Bush's rousing and raunchy routine appeared to at least temporarily mute concerns over the administration's links to the Christian right's broadening agenda.
Following in the racy footprints of her twin daughters at last year's Republican Party Convention -- but receiving little of the opprobrium heaped upon them -- the First Lady put on an edgy, well-paced performance. Her stand-up routine -- written by Landon Parvin, a long-time joke writer to the politically well-connected (mostly Reopublicans) -- and televised by C-SPAN, was packed with the kind of one-liners you might hear at a Whoopi Goldberg concert.
The First Lady started by interrupting the president -- as per the script -- and seizing the platform. Then, she mixed some light-hearted lines -- "I am married to the president of the United States, and here's our typical evening: Nine o'clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep, and I'm watching 'Desperate Housewives' [a program she had evidently never watched], with [Vice President Dick Cheney's wife] Lynne Cheney" -- with several sexed-up jokes -- "Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife. I mean, if those women on that show think they're desperate, they ought to be with George. One night, after George went to bed, Lynne Cheney, [Secretary of State] Condi Rice, [Bush adviser] Karen Hughes and I went to Chippendales," the home of buffed male strippers.
The most outrageous joke described the president's early arrival at the ranch in Crawford, Texas: As a graduate of Andover and Yale, which "don't have real strong ranching programs," the president was ill-prepared. He was so out of his element that he tried to milk a horse -- a male horse.
That was "probably the first joke told in earshot of a president that involved him and a horse's phallus," New York Times columnist John Tierney pointed out. The joke might have been better suited for a Democratic president, but like some of the non-family-values songs on the president's IPOD, this was definitely a Nixon goes to China moment.
What would the religious right say about the risqué routine? As of this writing, no major religious right leader has commented.
One of the few, however, willing to criticize the First Lady was a Pastor named Roy DeLong. According to the Internet and The Drudge Report, Pastor DeLong, who claimed to be the Chairman of the Coalition for Traditional Values, sent a letter to the White House complaining about the First Lady's performance.
In real life, however, neither Pastor DeLong nor the Coalition for Traditional Values actually exists.
Before their non-existence was revealed, the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) -- an anti-gay right wing fundamentalist network of churches run by the Rev. Lou Sheldon -- wary that the Coalition for Traditional Values' name sounded perilously close to the TVC, assured NewsMax.com, a conservative news service, "that he wasn't upset by Mrs. Bush's sometimes bawdy routine." He called it "hilarious," and said that she "stole the show."
There was a smattering of criticism from conservatives:
Michael A. Peroutka, the 2004 presidential candidate of the far right Constitution Party, who ran under the banner of "God, Family, Republic," had as much of a problem with the First Lady's routine as he did with the "foolish, embarrassing and dishonorable" routine of the Bush twins during last summer's New York City convention. Peroutka, who "cringed" at the daughters Bush remarks, also "cringed" at the First Lady's remarks.
Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin thought that while most of the First Lady's performance was "Edgy but not over the edge," the "off-color stripper and horse jokes crossed the line." "Can you blame Howard Stern for feeling peeved and perplexed?" Malkin wrote. "And let's face it: if Teresa ("I'm cheeky!") Heinz Kerry had delivered Mrs. Bush's First Lady Gone Mildly Wild routine, social conservative pundits would be up in arms over her bad taste and lack of dignity."
Other right wing commentators weren't as troubled. The Washington Times' Suzanne Fields gave the First Lady a "rave review for her comedy routine." Fields mentioned several of Laura Bush's jokes, but not the one about the president masturbating a horse. Fields wrote: "What made Laura so funny was the way she completely went against type, against all conventional expectation. Naturally, in Washington, where everything has to have a political interpretation, some people didn't get it."
Bozell, whose Parents Television Council (PTC) helped turn Janet Jackson's nipple-baring "wardrobe malfunction" during the halftime show at the 2004 Super Bowl into a year-long pro-censorship orgy, was comfortable with what he heard.
While Bozell's column avoided the "milking a male horse" comment, he maintained that "What made the First Lady's routine such a smash with the crowd was the implausibility of it all. Those who follow the Bushes around with notebooks for their employment would find Laura Bush to be the antithesis of a 'Desperate Housewife.' The routine was funny because it was Mrs. Bush."
These days, Republicans and their surrogates appear to have carte blanche to say whatever they want, whenever they want. On the May 6th edition of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," the comedian pointed out a few examples of rhetoric that would be unacceptable in another political climate: on the floor of the Senate, Vice President Cheney told Patrick Leahy, the Democratic Senator from Vermont, to go fuck himself; Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn claimed that it was understandable that some people might respond to "activist judges" by turning to violence; and Pat Robertson recently maintained that "activist judges" were a greater threat to our democracy than terrorists.
"Recently, the National Review's Stanley Kurtz, the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto and David Brooks of the New York Times -- all secular conservatives -- penned breathless columns defending the Christian right as just your average, civic-minded people's movement and protecting their values against a minority of 'militant secularists,'" Max Blumenthal told me in an e-mail interview. Blumenthal, who has reported on the religious right for Salon, The Nation and MediaTransparency.org, pointed out that "only a few months ago, Laura Bush was attacking John Kerry for supporting embryonic stem-cell research, and now she is telling dirty jokes to the Washington press corps.
"In the wake of the Terri Schiavo debacle, the Republican elite seems to be engaged in a concerted campaign to dispel the notion that its alliance with the Christian right could usher in a theocracy," said Blumenthal. "Their refusal to take the Christian right's stated intentions seriously only highlights their underlying cynicism."
However funny her performance might have been, the First Lady poked fun at her husband during a raunchy stand-up routine. Be mindful of the chutzpah it takes to tell sexually-laced jokes while fronting for an administration whose public policy initiatives doesn't countenance AIDS education or comprehensive sexuality education in the public schools.
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Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.