At this point in the presidency of George W. Bush, you might think you know just about everything worth knowing about him: his love of liberty, his rejection of the Eastern elitism that is his birthright, his irresponsible youth, his profound religious conviction, his tendency to see the world in black and white.
But there are certain colorful aspects of the president's life that have not been much explored, understandably overshadowed by war and a hard-fought election. That he listens to Creedence Clearwater Revival on his iPod, for instance. That he loves biographies and has recently dipped into Tom Wolfe's latest take on American culture. That he and his wife are enthusiastic art collectors. That he has no idea what's happening on Wisteria Lane.
These points may be light, but they are not entirely trivial. As the historian Douglas Brinkley put it, "The president and first lady have an immense pull on American culture." The Bushes are aware of this, said Laura Bush's press secretary, Gordon Johndroe. "There is a certain expectation that the president and first lady be consumers of American culture. They know people are interested in what movies they see and what music they listen to."
The president has owned the personal accessory of the moment for some time, said Johndroe. He's loaded his iPod with his favorite country singers: George Jones, Kenny Chesney and Alan Jackson. He also listens to Aaron Neville, Creedence and Van Morrison.
The first lady doesn't have an iPod but is a confirmed online shopper. "She buys everything online," said Johndroe.
But she has also begun shopping in the rarified aeries of 7th Avenue. Though she has always looked like a classy librarian, this year she has blossomed into a more chic version of herself, appearing at the inauguration last month in outfits by first-rank American designers Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera.
She knows what Googling is and has discussed the effect of EBay on the economy with its CEO, Meg Whitman. For privacy reasons, the Bushes do not use e-mail.
They also don't have much time for TV -- occasionally, they watch Country Music Television, said Johndroe. The president, a former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, told C-SPAN in an interview broadcast Jan. 30 that he mainly watches sports.
The couple have not caught "Desperate Housewives," said Johndroe, but their daughters are fans of the melodrama on Wisteria Lane. "Barbara and Jenna have talked to them about it, and they're worried that since they didn't start from the beginning it would be hard to jump in now."
The Bushes have not seen their daughters parodied on "Saturday Night Live" by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Nor have they seen Comedy Central's popular fake-news broadcast, "The Daily Show." But, said Johndroe, "They are familiar with Jon Stewart and his comments about 'Crossfire.' " (Last October, Stewart appeared on CNN's bipartisan scream fest and told co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala their bickering was "hurting America.") At least one of the Bushes approved of that message: "Mrs. Bush shares some of the same sentiment that many of those shows on TV have become one side yelling at the other and the other yelling back," said Johndroe, "and no one has any idea what they're talking about."
The Bushes watch first-run movies once or twice a week. They screened "Meet the Parents" for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, at Camp David. Recently, the Bushes watched the sequel, "Meet the Fockers," as well as "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." Mrs. Bush watched the French film "A Very Long Engagement." And last summer, she invited the Afghan ambassador's wife to the White House to see "Osama," a feature film by Siddiq Barmak about women under the Taliban. The Bushes will not watch the Oscars on Feb. 27; the broadcast conflicts with a state dinner they are hosting for the National Governors Assn.
An image carefully crafted
Brinkley, a biographer of John Kerry, thinks the Bushes reveal of themselves what is politically expedient: "He's trying to be a populist from Texas. These are people that look down on high culture." Brinkley disdainfully mentioned a moment during the president's recent C-SPAN interview when he said that he uses books as sleeping aids. ("I'm exercising quite hard these days," Bush said. "I get up very early and so the book has become somewhat of a sedative. Maybe there's a lot of old guys like me. Get in bed, open a book, 20 pages later, you're out cold.")
"Everything he earmarks about the culture is that it's not good to be from a blue-blood aristocratic family," said Brinkley. "You have to maintain your outsider status. You don't want to get tied up in anything highfalutin because that immediately reeks of liberalism and the New York Times and effete-ism. It's the opposite of the Kennedys."