As the presidential limousine pulled up to the South Portico for the ride up Pennsylvania Avenue, George Bush Jr. stood stoically and stiffly, poured into his regular uncomfortable performance suit, his hands and his wife stiffly at his side. Another long ride up the short street, the trappings of power in front and behind him; the flashing lights, the sirens, the motorcycle cops and the dark mysterious Secret Service men enveloping his space, every angle covered to protect him from anyone foolish enough to think they could make a name for themselves by getting to the Worst President Ever.
During the limo ride, he thought about his misbegotten presidency. For seven long years, he had read every script they put in front of him, made every appearance, official and for the party. He sat through endless hours of meetings with other people talking, only to have him give the pre-ordained approval to whatever plan someone else had. He acted engaged (as best he could) if the cameras were on or in front of the selectively selected "real" people. Other than the two hours they gave him everyday to escape to physical workouts in the gym or on his bike and his strategically early bedtime, he’d done every goddamn thing they asked him to do. All in all, it had been just about the same gig he expected when they signed him up to start this charade by running for Texas governor in 1994. It was OK, but it sure hadn’t been any better.
He still had a year before he could go back to the ranch for good and start scheduling the corporate speaking tour that would be the real pay-off for his willingness to go along with this presidential thing. As the Capitol grew in the foreground, he realized that this would probably be his last night on the national stage in prime time. No one will be happier about that than him.
George never cared about politics, or even history. His entire adult life was spent trying to find a niche. He was as miserable as his results in the oil business; happiest snapping towels with the players in the Texas Rangers’ clubhouse. He drifted into his dad’s world as the son of privilege; a corporate board here, a make-work job there. Of the brothers, Jeb was the politician, Neil the jerk-off. When they came to groom him as Reagan’s political heir, it was fine with him. He would hardly get in the way of the handlers as long as they kept up their end of the deal by taking care of him and his family after it was all over. Four years, possibly eight, then he would never have to work again. Sweet.
As his car rolled up to the Capitol, he felt the usual discomfort he always did having to meet these damn people. Most people in the jabbering class thought it was the press that annoyed him the most in Washington, but he could avoid them just by keeping away from their restricted quarters. He always met the media on his terms, be it in cushy interviews with empty network stars or Fox News lackeys or during press conferences, where he abruptly gave minimal answers to a minimal number of questions. Hell, he knew so little about what his own administration was doing, the press was bound to fail getting anything out of him anyway.
But Senators and House members were another thing – he had to deal with them once in a while, in various receptions and at events like this. They all said they cared so much about this or that and tried to get him to move one way or another. Weren’t they paying attention? Didn’t they know they had to talk to Rove or Cheney to get words to come out of his mouth? Did he ever give the impression to anybody that he cared about anything in this stupid town? Why would they think he did?
Running the gauntlet of glad-handers lining the halls of the Capitol that led from the car to the House chamber podium, he felt the mantle of his presidential pose lift for a moment, a crack in his psychic veneer he hadn’t allowed before. For the first time, he flirted with showing them the Real George Bush, the guy named Junior before he was cynically renamed "W" by political handlers. What would happen if they suddenly found the simple failed schmuck standing in front of them, just like he was before being plucked from deserved obscurity and built from the ground up by Karl Rove? As phony as he was, he was probably still the most real person in the room, if he allowed himself to be. These thoughts of fancy vanished as he stepped up to the podium and shook hands with Dick Cheney. Cheney looked concerned, but he always did. The program clicked in and Bush faced the Congress and the Nation.
The script followed not only familiar patterns, but many of the same actual words of SOUs past. The continuity had something to do with the regrettable lack creativity and flexibility of the administration, but also with comfort zone Bush himself had developed with the material. The emotional span of his speaking "style" ranged from amused to stern, and he knew people didn’t take him very seriously anyway, especially at this point. Knowing he had long since faded into the nation’s political past, his handlers had set this one on "coast". Applause lines were predictably interspersed with words that dared the Democratic side not to stand, such as praise for the troops in Iraq, etc. As Bush read from the transparent teleprompter and watched the see-saw of Congressmen and Senators alternately applauding, getting up and sitting down in rhythm to his speech, his mind again wandered to his uncharacteristic urge to mix things up a bit.
"Tonight the armies of compassion continue the march to a new day in the Gulf Coast," he began in his now-annual effort at Katrina/FEMA damage-control. Before reading on, he stopped and took a drink of water, looking out at the anxious faces as he did so. He heard the rustling of papers, the nervous impatience of his listeners in the silent hall, all with something better to do. "America honors the strength and resilience of the people of this region." He paused again, and took a deep breath. Aw, what the hell, he thought. "You know, I used to have a lot of fun down in New Orleans, back in the day. My buds and I used to cruise up and down Bourbon Street...Hell, we’d be drunk by noon."
Instead of recoiling, he heard applause. Half the room stood, this time scattered on both sides of the aisle. What was going on, he thought. Where are the gasps of disbelief, the nervous laughter of the unknown? For crying out loud, he just got seriously and dangerously off-script for the first time in seven years and...nothing. He imagined the network anchors scrambling for their headsets; the political operatives designing instant spin points in the back rooms; Cheney glowering behind him, grasping his chest as the pacemaker tried to get his heart back in sync.
But, no. Then he got it. Everyone in the room was as much on autopilot as he usually was. They were applauding the line about bringing an international conference to New Orleans that was in the script, not what he actually said. There was no reaction to his off-script comments because they didn’t hear it. Well, they heard his voice in the room, but they assumed he said what they were reading in the pamphlet. So they clapped, stood up (or not) and waited for the next subject.
Those bastards, thought Bush. There he was, knocking himself out to be the smooth, predictable hand-puppet all those years, and now it didn’t even matter. They were all as bad as he was – cynical actors on a national stage. They wouldn’t even give him the honor of recognizing when he screwed up. They had already moved on, jockeying on the floor with Clinton and Obama for favors and status, some of them looking to move up to the Cabinet – more influence with a (much) better president. Bush was a mere prop; his speech an excuse to get together and really plan for the nation’s future.
Bush chuckled to himself, took another drink of water and got back on script. He raced through the rest of it, barely pausing to let the applause lines take hold, not even bothering to dwell on the national security pandering that had worked so well for so long. He jumped off the podium and worked his way through the hall and out the door for the last time, never looking back.
They had Laura down at the limo waiting for him when he finally got there. As they got in the car and headed back to the White House, George started chuckling while Laura looked out the window. "Man, that was something else," he said. "Yes, very nice speech, dear," allowed Laura. "No, I mean that part of the speech when I started talking about my days carousing in New Orleans," he said.
Laura looked at him blankly. "You did what, now?"
George Bush Jr. fell back in the seat of the car and took a swig from his bottled water. "Never mind," he said. They were right, he thought. It’s better this way.