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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Mock Weapons Search Draws Laughs, Winces

Presidents have long poked fun at themselves, but some say Bush's latest gag went too far.

March 27, 2004|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When President Bush made jokes this week about the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he touched off a flap among critics who decried them as offensive, renewing the debate in Washington over where the line is between taste and humor.

At the annual black-tie radio and television correspondents dinner on Wednesday night, Bush tried to poke fun at himself -- the leitmotif of these events. Displaying a big-screen photo album of his administration, he showed himself futilely looking under cabinets and desks in the Oval Office.

"Those weapons of mass destruction have to be here somewhere," Bush joked in his verbal caption. "Nope, no weapons over there. Maybe under here."

The audience of 2,000 journalists and government officials laughed.

But after cable news programs began rebroadcasting the event, some families of service members complained to news organizations that the attempt at jocularity was inappropriate when their children were risking life and limb in Iraq.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Bush -- An article in Section A on Saturday about joking references President Bush made to the search for weapons of mass destruction mistakenly stated that the White House said Bush had cried with families at the funerals of service members killed in Iraq. The White House said he had cried with the families in private meetings.

George Medina, whose son, 22-year-old Spc. Irving Medina, died in Baghdad last year, told the New York Daily News that the jokes were "disgraceful," adding, "He doesn't think of all the families that are suffering."

And Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts put out a statement Thursday saying, "If George Bush thinks his deceptive rationale for going to war is a laughing matter, then he's even more out of touch than we thought."

The White House countered that Bush was aware of the suffering of soldiers and their families and has cried with them at funerals.

"The bulk of his remarks focused on a stirring tribute to our fighting men and women," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. "The last slide showed 30 servicemen and women, their faces blurred to protect their identities."

Presidents have long tried to defuse controversy, and even arouse sympathy, by making jokes at their own expense in the round of Washington press dinners during the banquet season, when winter turns to spring.

While controversy raged about his use of the Lincoln Bedroom to reward major donors, President Clinton told the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner in 1997: "The bad news is our only child [Chelsea] is going off to college. The good news is it opens up another bedroom."

When the Iran-Contra scandal was in the news, President Reagan insisted that he did not know that funds raised from Iranian arms sales meant to free U.S. hostages had been diverted to rebels in Nicaragua. At a Gridiron Club dinner for Washington correspondents in 1988, he joked that the missing money had been diverted to the Southern Methodist University football team.

Kerry himself has indulged in the one-liner game, telling a Gridiron dinner in 1999 that he married his wife, Teresa, heiress to the Heinz ketchup fortune, after receiving a love letter from her mailed in a big envelope he said was imprinted with the phrase "You May Already Be a Winner!"

And it's not as if jokes about the weapons of mass destruction have been off the table.

Vice President Dick Cheney told the Gridiron audience this year that laughing at oneself is a WMD -- a weapon of media destruction. But Cheney's remark was not videotaped and not aired repeatedly by broadcast networks and cable stations.

Comedians said the dividing line between getting laughs or winces was particularly thin in Washington.

"As a comedian, I can do satire on weapons of mass destruction," said comedian Al Franken, who recently entertained troops on a USO tour to Iraq. "As the president of the United States who sent men and women in harm's way based on weapons of mass destruction, you're in an iffy position."

Franken, who attended Wednesday's dinner, said Bush's running jokes about the weapons "went over pretty well in the room, and usually that's the test."

But the comedian, who is beginning a stint as a liberal radio talk show host, said the subsequent reaction indicated to him that Bush had become "a divisive figure."

Don Penny, a film producer and comedy writer who penned jokes for Republican presidents and more than 100 elected officials in the 1970s and 1980s, agreed that the Bush joke may have crossed the line. "Comedy is not funny when people are not happy," he said.

But he added, "It's tough to do comedy, because you're going to offend a number of people no matter what."

The White House viewed the matter through the prism of an election year, noting that presidents were expected to poke fun at themselves.

Asked if the White House was surprised by the criticism, spokesman Duffy said, "There's no lack of criticism flying around Washington these days, especially when it comes to the White House. It's a shame, because it's so early in process. We'd rather be looking at cherry blossoms. Instead we have to deal with the mud."

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