A New Delhi audience at the Hindustan Times Leadership Initiative got a glimpse of the combination of authentic emotion and self-deprecating banter that led George W Bush to win two terms in the White House.
Knowing his reputation as unsophisticated and inarticulate, the former US President started by saying he was “writing a book even though people on the coasts of America don’t believe I can read”.
He also took a poke at how he had rock-bottom ratings when he exited the White House. “I went to a hardware store to get a job and the owner told me, ‘Does anyone ever tell you that you look like George W Bush?’ I said, ‘I get that a lot.’ He replied, ‘God, you must hate that.’”
While discussing issues like the economic crisis or making presidential decisions, Dubya, as he is also known, leavened commentary with humour. “Wall Street got drunk, we got the hangover,” he said about the financial speculation that led to the recession. “As a President, you get paid — though not very much — to make tough calls,” he said when he reflected on being a superpower’s chief executive.
For a person depicted as dependent on minders, Bush showed a skill at extempore repartee. Asked about his strongly expressed support for women’s rights, Bush said, “I was raised by a strong woman, married a strong woman and raised two strong women. So, yeah, I support strong women.”
Making fun of his life as “a retired guy” was a running gag in the keynote address. What does he do in retirement? “Take long cruise rides and play shuffleboard.” Bush made fun of joining the lecture circuit. “Me getting paid for speeches is what my Dad calls white collar crime.” And when he told wife Laura that now that he’d retired she would have to start cooking, she replied, “So long as you do the dishes.”
Speaking soberly of how he regretted some of his intemperate language, such as saying he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive”, Bush couldn’t resist adding, “And Laura is always reminding me about it.”
There’s a story behind the Bush style. Political scientist Stanley Renshon, author of a psychoanalytical biography of Bush called In His Father’s Shadow, argues Bush developed his bantering style as a youngster because of a family tragedy: the death of his sister. Bush turned to humour to ease his mother’s depression.
As a politician, Bush combined this with a folksy manner that disguised his Harvard-Yale background and allowed genuine emotions to colour his speeches. The results would be unvarnished but sounded natural.
Veteran US journalist James Fallows once noted how Bush used this to defeat John McCain, Al Gore and John Kerry — all of whom were rated his mental superiors — in debate after debate.