By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Leno may be the ratings winner. Stewart is the critics’ darling. But, day in and day out, Letterman is the hands-down leader when it comes to unabashed Bush bashing. One reason is that his Late Showhas the brass balls to go where the cowardly White House news corps and corporate suck-up Leno fear to tread: presenting Dubya in all his dumb-ass glory.
During their workweek, executive producer Rob Burnett and his octet of writers often begin their morning by wondering, What’s George W. doing today? So they glance through his schedule and look for an interesting presidential public appearance. Then they contact CBS News or the local affiliate for the Bush raw footage and examine it in a process that often induces stupefying boredom. “We start out having no idea it will yield anything,” Burnett tells L.A. Weekly. “We put it on only if it’s funny. It’s not, ‘Oh, it’s Wednesday and we need Bush footage.’”
But the end result is really something. Enough fodder for the show to spotlight snarky segments like “George W. Bush: Inspiration to America” featuring the president flippantly telling a classroom, “Look, I didn’t like to take tests either, but that’s too bad.” Or, wearily listening to a business speech, nodding like a bobble-head doll and repeatedly checking his watch. (Déjà vu, anyone? Remember Daddy Bush checking his watch during the 1992 debates, a move that helped cost him the election?)
This past Monday, Dave’s people labeled a segment “Who Does George W. Bush Remind You Of?” and, while Hail to the Chief played loudly in the background, Shrub, talking about taxes, was shown stuttering, “the market . . . the market . . . the market . . .,” followed by a cut to a cartoon starring Porky Pig.
These undoctored snippets show Bush being Bush: a stumbling and fumbling orator, a why-can’t-I-just-take-the-money-and-run campaigner, or worse. This, of course, is in stark contrast to what happens to the footage once it’s been edited by the news media. Miraculously, Bush’s actual inarticulate ramblings or arrogant posturing are prettied up to the point where he’s made virtually coherent and semi-mature.
Just look at the startling difference between Bush reading a prepared text at the start of his April 13 live news conference and the long pauses, repetitive phrases and overall pathetic-ness of his replies when he tried to parry the press during the Q&A portion. But by the time the footage reached the nightly news, Bush seemed and sounded smooth. In his monologue Letterman even joked about the president’s poor performance: “Bush’s press conference was such a big deal that Fox pre-empted American Idol. That makes sense: You don’t want too many amateurs on TV the same night.”
Which is why Letterman’s Stupid President Tricks segment is so deliciously subversive: because it’s truthful. Truthful, at a time when the news media are engaged in unsettling arguments over how much unvarnished truth about the war in Iraq — from footage of the desecration of American victims in Fallujah to photographing the rows of coffins of U.S. soldiers on their sad voyage home — is palatable to the public. Truthful, when Bush’s image makers have been editing the official White House transcripts to make the president and his people sound more presidential. (Remember that low point in the aftermath of 9/11 when Bush mouthpiece Ari Fleischer warned that Americans “need to watch what they say”? Those Big Brother tactics were edited out of the official White House transcript.) Truthful, when the Bush administration has been purging government-issued facts and statements, like last year’s deletion from cyberspace of the gross understatement made by the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development that U.S. taxpayers would not have to pay more than $1.7 billion to reconstruct Iraq, or like the gutting of a chapter on global climate change from a 2002 government study on the state of the environment.
It’s this kind of hypocrisy that the Letterman show is headlining. And the White House is noticing. (So is W.’s daddy, who recently got all teary-eyed about how “It hurts an awful lot more when it’s your son that is being criticized.” Didn’t Republicans accuse Clinton of murder, thievery, fraud and rape?) Hollywood remains a huge headache for all the president’s men, and not just because the TV-movies-music industry gave 78 percent of its millions in political donations to Democrats in 2002. The Bushies hate the anti-Bushisms creeping into prime time on Whoopi and Law & Order and Curb Your Enthusiasm (where Larry David backed out of sex when the prospective partner turned out to be a Bush supporter).
So it stands to reason that Rove et al. fear Leno and Letterman because the duo proved pivotal last time out. A Pew Research survey before the 2000 presidential election found that almost half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, and more than a quarter of all adults, often gained their info about the campaign from late-night comedy shows. “I don’t think this is the place you want to get your news, but it’s probably more entertaining than other places,” Burnett tells the Weekly.