President Obama hosted ex-President Bush and Laura Bush on Thursday for the unveiling of their official portraits, and it was a real yukfest. Mr. Obama got things rolling by thanking his predecessor for good advice, kind words, and for outfitting the White House with “a really good TV sports package.”
“I use it,” said the current Oval Office resident.
Things went downhill from there. Or uphill, depending on your view of whether such events should be serious. Mr. Bush was in rare form, combining one of his old favorite comic tropes (calling George Washington the “first George W.”) with some new lines to produce perhaps the first ex-presidential stand-up routine.
“When the British burned the White House ... in 1814, Dolly Madison famously saved this portrait of the first George W.,” said Bush.
Then he pointed to his own painting.
“Now Michelle, if anything happens, there’s your man,” said Bush to general laughter.
Bush thanked his dad, the 41st president, and his mother, who were in the audience.
Then he said, “It is my privilege to introduce the greatest first lady ever ... sorry Mom.”
“Would you agree to a tie?”
(See, that’s funny because he’s introducing his wife, Laura, not his mother, Barbara. And Barbara Bush is not, you know, meek. Nothing like an explanation to suck the life out of a joke, is there?)
The rest of the presentation included Laura Bush’s reference to a Laura Bush bobblehead doll and Michelle Obama’s promise to hang the Bush portraits in place she could easily reach if the British show up to torch the place again.
Why did an episode of “The Daily Show” break out at this simple White House ceremony?
For one thing, George W. has always been a funny guy. Opponents used to complain about his smirk in office, but now that he’s out of office, he can let loose without fear of being accused of inappropriate levity.
For another, both Bush and Obama had ample time to prepare. They scheduled this unveiling a long time ago. We would not be surprised if speechwriters from both sides collaborated on the lines. (You think that’s cynical? Come on, they take the time to poll test how voters react to individual words. Like “Bain” and “Solyndra.”)
Finally, the humor defused what could have been an awkward situation. An ex-president from one party appears on a podium with the new president from another party who complains constantly about the mess he inherited – that sounds like a situation that could get ugly fast if somebody throws an insult. Humor is safer. Even if “Washington humor” is an oxymoron, like “New York humility,” or “L.A. gravitas.”