What can you do with a good ol’ boy like Bubba? He only does what Bubba does. You probably shouldn’t blame a distracted and overwhelmed Barack Obama, either. But that was a remarkable show the two presidents put on at the White House the other day.
No one remembered such a remarkable abdication of authority since Edward VIII, as goofy as Alfred E. Neuman, gave up a throne, several palaces and the royal grouse hunts to keep at his side “the woman I love.” Or at least since Johnny Carson stepped aside for Jay Leno. What’s next? Will the president take Bubba along the next time he and Michelle flee the White House for a brief exile in friendlier places?
The president — the black one — seemed a little befuddled the other day when the other president — the white one — took control of an impromptu press conference at the White House. Mr. Obama got Bubba’s endorsement of his tax compromise with the Republicans, but at considerable cost. The president was a man caught between two fires, one kindled by the pushy visitor in the briefing room and the other in the parlor, and a husband, even a presidential husband, knows how to calibrate the heat and knows better than to keep an impatient wife with a roast in the oven waiting when guests are arriving for supper.
The most powerful man in the world revealed himself unable to assert the authority of either himself or his office. His press aide stood helplessly at the edge of the scene, allowing Bubba to drone on about taxes, the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, credit markets, economic theory, nuclear weapons, bipartisanship and the weather. He stopped just short of taking a question about school uniforms, the signature issue of his own presidency.
The ineptitude of the Obama White House, revealed piece by piece over the months, was at last writ large enough for all to see. Could anyone imagine Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan allowing a former president to come into his house and take over a press conference? Could anyone imagine even Jimmy Carter deferring to such an interloper?
Mr. Obama had invited Bubba in for a private chat, and reporters were told there would be no photo-op, no questions, not even a written statement afterward. When Bubba told the president he wanted to make an endorsement of the tax compromise, Mr. Obama, who rarely hears an encouraging word, took him to the briefing room. Alas, it was locked, and nobody knew who had the key. The two presidents wandered the corridors, looking for someone to let them in.
The only aide in the place finally found a key, but there still wasn’t a proper pulpit for Bubba. Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, heard the commotion and walked out into the corridor to find the two lost presidents. “What are you guys up to?” he asked. The president, who a fortnight earlier allowed a television interviewer to address him as “dude,” was now reduced to a “guy.”
“We’re looking for some reporters,” the president replied. Mr. Gibbs put both presidents behind a closed door and scrambled to find “some reporters.” Most of them were at the Christmas party, but finally what passed for a quorum was assembled, and when the president introduced him as “the other guy” Bubba was off into the wild blue yonder. He was ecstatic to be back in the White House, even on borrowed time. He joked and waved his arms, piercing the air with a bony finger for emphasis, occasionally glancing about the room, his eyes again on intern alert.
Good ol’ boys, even former presidents, nearly always remember their Southern manners, and Bubba tried to give the illusion of nibbling at a slice of humble pie. “So, for whatever it’s worth,” he said, “that’s what I think.” Mr. Obama played the grateful inexperienced bridegroom inviting the ex-husband along to help on the honeymoon. “It’s worth a lot,” he said.
Then he said he had to leave for Michelle’s party, and Bubba had the place for himself. “I feel awkward being here,” he told the president, “and now you’re going to leave me here all by myself.” For the next half-hour he was the real president again, taking questions and dispensing wit and bonhomie. It was great theater, and a good time was had by all. But you can bet men are taking notes in Tehran and Pyongyang, Beijing and other capitals where the shrewd and unforgiving are forever looking for signs of weariness, weakness and impotence.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.