Laura Bush: No laughing matter

Posted: May 09, 2005 12:00 AM

Lovely Laura Bush: yuk-yuk, or just yuck?

The event under consideration -- the first lady's monologue at the White House Correspondents' Dinner -- weighs in alongside flotsam and jetsam, but the question has hefty ramifications. It may be the ultimate "litmus test," a chance to reveal something more vital than mere politics, and certainly less easily defined: the state of public taste and judgment.

This should come as something of a relief to those among us weary of the well-worn Red State, Blue State divide. Better to carve up the world between those who found Laura Bush's jokes funny, and those who didn't. Or, rather, those who found Laura Bush's jokes an ornament to the White House, and those who wished a grownup had happened by the East Wing to yank them from the script and throw in some nifty new adventures of Barney.

Why? When a woman happens to be first lady, "funny" at any expense isn't part of the job description, not when "funny" comes at the expense of her husband's image. And I don't mean "image" as in public relations product. I mean "image" as in public symbol. World leader.
Commander-in-chief. In these explosive times, with tens of thousands of soldiers under arms.
Which is a sobering thought, or should be.

In other words, feet of clay are fine, but there's no reason to bring the barnyard into it.
Whoopi Goldberg steered a Democratic fund-raiser into the gutter last summer with a crude pun on the Bush family name, prompting Republican accusations that John Kerry didn't "share the same values" as the rest of America.

But what about the rest of the Bush family? Laura Bush is no stand-up comic, but that's all the more reason certain sorts of "jokes" should be automatically, reflexively, unquestioningly ruled out for her public delivery. Jokes that link the president's hands and the underside of a horse, for instance. Jokes that create a regrettably indelible image of the first lady, the vice president's wife, the secretary of state, and a Supreme Court justice together at Chippendale's, waving dollars bills at male strippers. Even jokes that make a "Mommie Dearest" out of former first lady Barbara Bush. Such material won't pull more than a PG rating these days, but a first lady in any era should be mature enough to avoid all "adult" material.

Once upon a time, such discretion was a no-brainer, an obvious rule that needed no articulation, much less conscious thought. No more -- which is why there seem to be more people, including conservatives, applauding Mrs. Bush than sitting on their hands. We live in a society that prizes the guffaw above all, where "lighten up" is a commandment and anything really does go. But it goes for no reason. That is, I can think of no reason to motivate a first lady to mock a president in front of a White House press corps that makes a career of doing so on a daily basis. "George," she said, "if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to have to stay up later." The hilarity of her moment passes, but something has changed.

Exactly what it is that has changed is difficult to explain. After all, the whole thing was "just" a joke. But Laura Bush is not Joan Rivers. Splashing into the media mainstream to join the derisive fun, decoupling fateful words from mortal purpose, is a risky proposition for the wife of a superpower leader. One day, "ending tyranny" is Mr. Bush's raison d'etre; the next day, it is Mrs. Bush's punch line.

The day after that -- who knows? The lingering air of uncertainty is hardly worth the media snickers, even if the first lady did manage to "humanize" her husband, as The New York Times so admiringly put it. Certainly, she knocked him down some pegs, which in our age is much the same thing. But imagine other presidencies, particularly in wartime. Would we have said Eleanor humanized FDR by doing a stand-up routine about Franklin always "fearing fear itself"?
Or that Pat Nixon humanized Richard by wondering where the heck the peace was that Dick said was "at hand"? Or that Nancy Reagan humanized Ron by teasing him about tearing down that old wall?

"Lighten up," they say, in a programmed response. No thanks. A laugh-track nation doesn't really offer serious comic relief.