When Dubya Dubs Ya, Just Say "Hey"

"There is a new tenant in the Oval Office these days, and President Bush has brought with him his own signature style. That means nicknames, even for a liberal Democrat like Rep. George Miller." (New York Times, Jan. 25)

"Big George" Miller is one of many grizzled Washington veterans struck by new President Bush's modus operandi, including his legendary fondness for assigning nicknames. "I must say, I found it refreshing," Miller said.

While other Washington leaders have been similarly charmed, on occasion Bush's folksy, loosey-goosey style has backfired. Last Friday, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy stormed out of a bipartisan meeting on education policy after the new president referred to him as "Chappy."

"It's just his way of showing affection," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, whom Bush likes to call "Bald Jew."

Popular culture references are a big part of the fun-loving president's repertoire. Interior Secretary Gale Norton was a bit startled the first time Bush, impersonating an angry and frustrated Jackie Gleason, addressed her simply as "Norton!" In the same way, Arizona Sen. John McCain was somewhat taken aback when the new president called him "Hoga-a-an!" in a pitch-perfect imitation of Col. Klink from the popular '60s television show "Hogan's Heroes."

"I'm used to it now," said the former P.O.W., "and I admit it's funny in an odd sort of way. But I'm still going to introduce campaign finance reform as soon as possible."

Sometimes, though, a Bush popular culture reference will fall flat. At an early White House reception, for example, Bush referred to Rep. Barney Frank's new partner as "Anne Heche." "He was offended," Frank said, "not so much because it was tasteless, but because it was so outdated."

Still, Democratic Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, whom Bush referred to as "Mini-Me" in a recent meeting with women lawmakers, came away feeling hopeful about working with the new administration. "He's very down to Earth," said the 4-foot-11 Mikulski, the Senate's shortest member. "It was a very light-hearted meeting, though a little thin on policy specifics."

But California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said the president's penchant for nicknames confused her for most of the 45-minute pow-wow.

"Every time he looked at me, he called me 'Frasier.' I thought he had me confused with Washington senators Patty Murray or Maria Cantwell, because the show 'Frasier' takes place in Seattle. But after he called Sen. Barbara Boxer 'Ali' for maybe the 10th time, I realized he was playing off her name and the two of us were Ali-Frazier."

"The point is he's trying," Boxer said.

The thought process behind Bush's choices can sometimes seem impenetrable. The president's new name for Vice President Dick Cheney, "Angie," came out of an incident following Cheney's heart attack last Thanksgiving. When Bush went in front of cameras to reassure the nation, he failed to mention that his running mate had just had an angioplasty because his staff had withheld that information from him. "That was a mistake," Fleischer lamented. "But frankly, we were in a bind. None of us thought there was a prayer he could pronounce 'angioplasty.'"

The first sign that Bush would use nicknames as a bonding technique came during the campaign when he assigned a name to each member of the traveling press corps. CNN's Candy Crowley drew the name "Candy-leeza" because, he told her, she and Condoleezza Rice were the smartest women he knew. The president has continued to use the same nicknames now that he's in the White House, although not always with an eye toward comity." New York Times reporter Adam Clymer kept his nickname," Fleischer said.

Privately, Bush aides have expressed concerns on how the nicknames will play with foreign leaders. The first head of state Bush contacted was Mexican President Vicente Fox, whom Bush jokingly called "Montezuma." "We think that Vice President Cheney or Secretary of State Colin Powell will be doing most of the one-on-ones with foreign leaders," Fleischer said.

Washington insiders wonder whether the president's overtures will translate into real legislative achievements. "He does have a talent for working a room," said Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Thomas Mann, one of three people whom Bush calls "My Main Man." (The others are Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts and White House steward Manolo Ramos.) "But he has to remember that this town is a two-way street. He's got to take as well as he gives. Let's see how he reacts when a Sen. Robert Byrd or an Alan Greenspan calls him, say, 'President Butthead.' That'll be the test."

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI. Al Franken is a comedian and author.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
  • Phone: 202-862-5893
    Email: nornstein@aei.org
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