This past Sunday I laughed harder than I have in quite a while. It all started with the NY Times news roundup of George Bush’s trip to Latin America. I will quote it in full since it wasn’t an article per se, and the NY Times will “disappear” it from their web site soon.
On Bush’s Trip, a Name Unspoken and a Surprising Phrase
MÉRIDA, Mexico, March 14 — Try as they might to make President Bush utter the name of his chief Latin American nemesis, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, reporters who covered Mr. Bush’s five-nation trip through South and Central America could not succeed.
Mr. Bush faced at least 11 questions about Mr. Chávez either in interviews immediately preceding his trip or in the mini-briefings he held in each country he visited, including a couple in which Mr. Bush was directly asked about the avoidance.
Yet not once did he take the bait to say Mr. Chávez’s name or to acknowledge him as a person. At one point reporters considered asking him directly, “Who is the president of Venezuela?” They concluded that it would not only be too ridiculous, but that it probably would not bring the desired result anyway.
What appeared to be a decision to avoid using the name reflected a calculation by Mr. Bush that to engage in any sort of direct debate with the Venezuelan leader — who has called Mr. Bush a liar, “the devil” and a “political cadaver” — would be to encourage him that much more as he popped up throughout the week in Argentina or Nicaragua or Haiti or Jamaica to hurl still more insults.
And aides traveling with Mr. Bush this week did their best to contend that he was not paying a stitch of attention to Mr. Chávez.
But Mr. Bush undercut them by suggesting during an interview with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News that Mr. Chávez was indeed on his mind. Ms. Van Susteren interviewed Mr. Bush after he visited the ranch of President Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay, where his host served him Uruguayan barbecue. “Venezuela has got fantastic meats,” Mr. Bush said, then caught himself. “I mean, Uruguay has got fantastic meats.”
Why Yes, He Did Say That
Even Mr. Bush’s friends in the region displayed an uncomfortable unpredictability in their public comments this week. The prize for the most off-color commentary during one of Mr. Bush’s joint news conferences goes to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil.
Appearing with Mr. Bush in São Paulo last week, Mr. da Silva was asked about the prospects for a conclusion of the Doha Round of trade talks, important for nations like Brazil that seek freer access to American and European markets.
According to the real-time translation pumped into the ears of the American visitors, Mr. da Silva said, “We’re moving on solid ground to find a chance for the so-called ‘G-point’ to come to an agreement.”
President Bush blanched, and the Brazilians in the room broke out in uproarious laughter and gasps as the other Americans in the room puzzled over what initially appeared to them to be perhaps a local term used when speaking about trade talks. What the slightly erroneous translation meant was a certain erogenous zone in the female anatomy.
American officials said aides traveling with Mr. Bush — among them Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley — were initially in disbelief. But alas, it was true.
Perhaps they could have seen it coming had they seen Mr. da Silva’s quotes to local reporters the day before, when he promoted open talk about sexuality as a way to combat AIDS: “Sex is something that almost everybody likes. It’s an organic necessity for the human species and animal species.”
Another Organic Necessity
With scandal brewing at home and protests greeting him wherever he went, President Bush seemed to be seeking solace in food.
It was certainly on his mind, and wherever he went he made some reference to what he would eat, what he hoped to eat or what he had eaten.
In a news briefing in Uruguay at Dr. Vázquez’s ranch — where meats were prepared in a giant pit — Mr. Bush said: “I appreciate your willingness to cook some Uruguayan beef. You’ve told me all along how good it is, and after we answer a few questions, we’re about to find out.”
In an joint news briefing with President Óscar Berger of Guatemala that preceded a dinner together, Mr. Bush said he was hurrying his remarks, explaining, “I’m not going to talk too long because I might get too hungry.”
Toward the end of the briefing, Mr. Bush reminded his host, “This will be your last question, Mr. President, and then we can start thinking about dinner — la cena,” then asking, “Qué vamos a comer?” — or, “What are we going to eat?”
“Tortillas,” Mr. Berger said. “We have tortillas with guacamole and beans.”
“Tortillas?” Mr. Bush said, “Qué bueno.”
But in Mexico, Mr. Bush seems to have finally had his fill. Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, opened the one full-fledged news briefing he gave during the entire trip by explaining Mr. Bush’s lunch menu on Tuesday: “Three panuchos: These are corn tortillas filled with refried beans — actually, sort of layered, not ‘filled,’ your flat, round tortillas, not great, big tortillas — with pork, turkey and roast chicken.”
On top of that, he said, “There was a fresh grouper fillet, with white rice and a Mexican herb called epazote, I think, and refried beans.” Then, “papaya compote ice cream, served with a marquesita, that’s a regional crepe, quite good; grated Dutch cheese.”
Speaking with his host, President Felipe Calderón, on Wednesday morning, Mr. Bush finally admitted, “Estoy lleno,” or, “I’m full.”
Few Signs of Snow
As he indicated during his briefing, Mr. Snow seemed to enjoy the food as well, as he stuck close to Mr. Bush’s side at presidential lunches and dinners and tours through Mayan ruins in Guatemala and Mexico.
But his empty lectern in the various hotel filing centers — where most of the journalists traveling with Mr. Bush worked as he toured — became something of a running joke among reporters who had little contact with Mr. Bush and his retinue and were chagrined by the absence of the man assigned to talk to them.
At one point The Washington Post posted a mock milk carton all-points bulletin on its Web site, showing a picture of Mr. Snow and the headline, “Have you seen this man?”
Mr. Snow finally showed up on the last full day of the tour, briefing in the early evening about Mr. Bush’s meetings with Mr. Calderón in a bright yellow shirt that led one reporter — O.K., this one — to shout out, “It’s like the arrival of the sun.”
Mr. Snow later apologized, saying that the president’s schedule had been more hectic and complicated than expected, making it logistically difficult for him time to brief the majority of the news media on the trip.
Could Bush and his administration seem more clueless or irrelevant? Probably. OK, given the track record, certainly. But this was a nevertheless amusing snapshot of Shrub flitting like a blissfully ignorant aristocrat around a region of the world that pretty much hates him (a group of Mayan priests even thought it necessary to break out the spiritual scrubbing bubbles after his visit), continually side-stepping any vexing topics in a single-minded quest for the buffet table. I can almost hear him advising the poor to eat cake…
This reading experience was followed by an episode of the radio show “This American Life“. The theme was “What I Learned from TV”.
The first act was devoted to David Rakoff’s assignment to watch 29 hours of television (the average amount of TV an American household watches in a week) after 20 years away from the medium — a sort of “stranger in a strange land” scenario. The whole segment is hilarious, but the part that convulsed me with laughter, that had me CRYING, and still makes me chuckle when I think about it, was this:
Watching TV for me is a referendum on my loneliness. Having the television on just seems like some desperate simulacrum of company, stuffing the other side of the bed with clothes.
It is a chilly reality brought home to me, with all the force of a frying pan to the face, by a small item in the New York Times on Sunday, the 18th of February. The article was about how a man, a 70-year-old widower named Vincenzo Ricardo, was found in his home dead. Officials believe that Mr. Ricardo, discovered sitting in his chair, had been dead for more than a year. He was very well preserved, mummified by the hot, dry air in his home — air no doubt made even hotter and drier by the fact that, for the entire year-plus that Mr. Vincenzo sat stiff and expired in his recliner, his television was on.
There was apparently a study recently that showed that people who watched episodic television, following a set of characters on an ongoing basis, experienced many of the same positive effects as people derive from having friends, actual friends. TV is a friend, one might conclude. Well, call me old-fashioned, but the minimum of true friendship strikes me as being at the very least, the capacity for one friend to look over at another and be able to say, “Hey, buddy, how ya doing? You want me to call 911 or something? Cuz you’re looking a little… oh, I don’t know… DEAD!”
It probably says something terrible about me that I really, sincerely, found both of these items hilarious. And I am not joking.