President Bush is telling another audience that the Social Security system is in great distress, and there will be ghastly consequences if our leaders don't act, and act now.
But first, a little joke:
About a guy trying to get to Livingston, Mont. "To get to Livingston, you've got to go down the highway," Bush says during a recent "town meeting" in Great Falls, Mont. "And you go through the cattle guard. And you turn left. And go through another cattle guard."
Bush chuckles, races through his setup, then hurtles into his punch line.
"And a fellow comes back and says, 'Hey, what color uniforms do those cattle guards have on?' "
Get it? Like, the doofus in the joke thought "cattle guards" were people (protecting the cows), as opposed to steel rails (placed at fence openings to stop cows from walking onto roads).
The crowd is silent. Bush's face freezes in a guess-you-had-to-be-there smile.
Laughter comes eventually, in deference to the president's game effort, if not his joke (showing that it's possible to hate the joke but love the jokester). There are smiling grimaces and shaking heads, looks of amused disbelief that ask:
Did the Leader of the Free World really just go off on such a goofball digression?
In fact he did, and has been doing so often during otherwise sober discussions on Social Security, energy policy and foreign affairs. Like many politicians, Bush has always used humor as an icebreaker or all-purpose tool of endearment. But he has recently been unleashing (or inflicting) his inner-laugh-riot to a point where he is resembling a Texas auctioneer pitching private accounts on the Borscht Belt.
Last Wednesday Bush began a speech in Columbus, Ohio, by mentioning the international body-building competition that was held there the previous weekend. "When the vice president heard I was coming, he asked me to pick up an application form for next year's competition," the president joked, and what better image to begin a speech on energy policy?
At a town meeting in Little Rock last month, Bush was joined onstage by Gloria Bennett, a part-time food inspector.
"I'm from De Queen, Arkansas," she told the president.
"That," Bush replied, nodding, "is right next to De King."