Laura Bush: Comedy vs. reality

Posted: May 09, 2005 12:00 AM

The White House Correspondents Dinner might sound like a gray and boring journalistic event, but for Washingtonians, it's becoming Hollywood Night. Among the celebrities attending this year's D.C. dinner were Richard Gere, Elisabeth Shue, Dennis Hopper and Jane Fonda. First Lady Laura Bush drew rave reviews from the pundits for her comedic routine playing on ABC's trashy new hit "Desperate Housewives." Mrs. Bush joked that she not only watched the show, but she was a "desperate housewife" who took Mrs. Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes to see male strippers at Chippendales, where they stuff dollar bills in the dancers' drawers, and that Mrs. Cheney's new Secret Service name was "Dollar Bill."

 It shouldn't be surprising that Hollywood's elite looked askance that some uptight, straitlaced, parent-prodding complainers were upset with the First Lady, wondering why she, of all people, had to promote that sleazy ABC show. (It certainly doesn't need the publicity -- you can't make it through "Access Hollywood" or "Entertainment Tonight" without your dose of "Desperate" hype.) It's some of the worst American pop culture has to offer, and will qualify as one of our foulest exports when it hits the international TV market, with America-bashers around the world declaring that America is captured perfectly by that cartoonish show: soulless wealthy people misbehaving in the most shameful ways imaginable. God bless America.

 There is, of course, another side to the story. Mrs. Bush has never actually seen the show, and clearly her tongue was placed firmly in cheek. 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 delivering it.

 Still, still. If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, then the White House Correspondents Dinner is turning out to be the tribute that virtue pays to vice. Three years ago, President Bush was hailing Ozzy Osbourne, then the pop-culture sensation of the moment for his MTV "reality" show best known for showcasing his dysfunctional family and his never-ending trail of bleeped obscenities. At least the president gave the audience a good sense of the weirdness of Ozzy's metal tunes: "'Party With the Animals.' 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.' 'Facing Hell.' 'Black Skies,' and 'Bloodbath in Paradise.' Ozzy, Mom loves your stuff." And with that Ozzy became the toast of the town, the center of media attention for that year's Hollywood-meets-Washington weekend.

 Mrs. Bush's speech, which seemed designed to loosen up the stuffy evangelical Christian image as the Washington press corps worries about a new American ayatollah under every bed, brought to mind the last feeble attempt to loosen up the Bush family image: the Bush daughters' clunky introduction of their father at the Republican convention in New York last summer.

 True to the pattern, Barbara and Jenna Bush mocked their grandma for reportedly disapproving of the HBO stink bomb "Sex and the City," which was yesterday's loose-women flashpoint of TV trash. Grandma didn't like their clothes, or music, or favorite TV shows, so "Gammie, we love you dearly, but you're not very hip." By contrast, the girls endorsed their parents as "cool," insisting they knew the difference between "mono and Bono," and knew that Outkast was a rap group, not a "bunch of misfits."

 It's never a bad idea for parents to be tuned into what the popular culture is offering, but there's a difference between knowing something and wallowing in it. Parents need to be knowledgeable and discriminating about the culture their youngsters consume, prepared unequivocally to condemn lust without borders, violence without conscience or language that assaults the ears.

 By contrast with the Chippendales comedy routine, the First Lady gives a completely different impression in the May issue of Ladies' Home Journal, explaining how she tried to bring up her daughters by showing them her own self-discipline, by taking them to church and, even now, by taking care of her mother, who has moved into a retirement home.

 America is grateful for a president and first lady who lead lives that don't look anything like "Desperate Housewives." The Bush family now needs to resist the urge to pander to Hollywood for political gain, and focus more attention on the growing American majority horrified by what that industry is teaching their children nightly.