Moments after Jay Leno ripped President Bush in his monologue one night last week the "Tonight Show" host interviewed "the president," "via satellite" from "Kyoto, Japan."
A grinning president, looking not quite himself, appeared, greeting Leno in botched Japanese. Leno asked what he thinks of the Kyoto Accord.
"Kyoto Accord, Kias, Hondas -- Jay, all those little foreign cars, same thing," said the commander-in-chief, his shoulders doing a bumpkin-like bounce as he heh-heh-hehs.
Leno asked the purpose for the trip.
Bush: "We want to bring democracy to Japan."
Leno: "Mr. President, Japan is a democracy!"
Bush smiled wide, looked directly into the camera and with an exaggerated thumbs-up gesture replied, "Mission accomplished!"
Big audience laugh.
To look the part for his brief "Tonight Show" appearances, 42-year-old impersonator Steve Bridges undergoes 21/2 hours of prosthetic makeup. He's been refining his Bush impression for more than four years.
"I try to become that person in a funny way. I try to act like him, from the mannerisms to the phraseology," says Bridges, who does an amiable dullard Bush, one who answers an avian flu question from Leno by dismissing "that fancy bottled water" and praising Texas water. "I don't get on my soapbox. . . . My job is to get people laughing."
When Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) walked onto the Mayflower Hotel's stage last month for the 12th annual "Funniest Celebrity in Washington" contest, he wore a dark suit and blue tie, accessorized with a construction-worker tool belt and oversize work gloves a la President Bush.
"Ah've just come back from mah 47th trip to New Orleans," Baird announced in his best George W. Bush impression for the $250-per-plate charity fundraiser audience. "Ah'm buildin' Habitat for Humanity. [Pause.] To show I'm compassionate."
Baird's president-skewering routine went on for minutes (and he won the contest). Capitol Hill's most unabashed impersonator says he works "harrrd" on mimicking the president. "You kind of pick it up," he says. "You lean over the podium like Bush would, pause and act like you're going to say something really profound. But, when it comes out . . ."
Many Moods of George
Bush has that one quality that every president of the modern media has possessed -- he is easy to mimic. But why do we do him? What is it about a crisis-brewing, low approval-rated second term that brings out even more of the presidential impersonator in everyone? It is perhaps the reassurance that we are an essentially ungovernable, sass-back nation of malcontents. Your brother-in-law does a good W., never mind that he staunchly supported him in 2004. Everyone can do him, a little, or an impression of someone else's impression. No form of American political humor cuts closer to the bone than impersonating the president, with all the verbal ticks, mannerisms, faults and foibles exaggerated.
"The court jester really existed, and he was the only person who could be critical without being hung. That same role exists today," says Stephen Rosenfield, director of the American Comedy Institute in New York.
This season's first episode of "Saturday Night Live" found comedian Will Forte again carrying on the show's 30-year tradition of aping the leader of the free world. Forte did a press-conference sketch of a flustered, whiny 43 taking questions on the chin in the Katrina aftermath.
"Let me just speak to the Amerrr-can people about the currrent situation down there in the Gulf. It's gettin' better!" said Forte doing his Bush impression. "When this whole thing started, I was on my usual six-week vacation, like every other American takes. I made the harrrd decision to cut my vacation short."
Forte says impersonation isn't exactly his, uh, forte.
"I don't have the impersonation chops," he says, noting that his Kermit the Frog voice is far better than his Bush. But he relies instead on studying TiVoed CNN broadcasts to capture the president's mannerisms, speech patterns and pacing. "I try to go for the overall feeling instead," he says.
So does Mike O'Meara. On the afternoon Bush introduced John Roberts as his nominee for the Supreme Court, "The Don & Mike Show," heard locally on WJFK-FM, played the president's brief speech as a warm-up for O'Meara's dead-on impression. Gutsy, playing the real thing before parroting the president for an ad-libbed half-hour.
"But you aren't necessarily trying to re-create the most accurate impression," says O'Meara, who also does a decent Arnold Schwarzenegger and Larry King, among others. "You want to create the attitude."
Describing key characteristics of "doing Bush," O'Meara sounds like the president's shrink. "There is the overconfident George Bush, which is one of my favorites, like the day he introduced 'the architect of the campaign,' Karl Rove," says O'Meara, who has been doing presidential impressions since he was 5, when he heard Vaughn Meader's impression of John F. Kennedy. "There's the smug, arrogant Bush I like more than any of them. And there's another one most of us love -- the struggling George Bush, trying to find the right words.
"It is so much fun when you have a president who gives you so much material," he says. "It is really a slice of Americana, comedians doing impressions of presidents."
Will Jordan, who has been doing celebrity impressions since the 1950s (he is known for the definitive Ed Sullivan), is also something of a show-business historian. The earliest presidential impression onstage he has tracked down was a Teddy Roosevelt, done in blackface in Lou Dockstater's minstrel shows, where Al Jolson got his break. In the '30s and '40s, mimics impersonated Franklin D. Roosevelt. Most notable were actor Dean Murphy at New York's post-vaudeville nightclubs, says Jordan, and renowned female impersonator Arthur Blake, who did a sublime FDR when not doing his celebrated Bette Davis at gay clubs.
Impersonations back then weren't strictly gags, however. In 1931, Time magazine's radio program, "The March of Time," dramatized the week's news events using actors imitating the voices of world leaders, including FDR and Adolph Hitler.
"There was a big clampdown," says Nicholas Cull, an American studies professor at the University of Leicester, on leave at the University of Southern California.
Kennedy special assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was listening to his car radio while driving to the White House one morning in late 1962, and heard what seemed to be a presidential news conference. A distinctly Kennedy voice answered a question about the chances of a Jewish president being elected: "Now, let me say, I don't see why a person of the Jewish faith can't be president of the United States. I know as a Catholic I could never vote for him, but other than that . . . "
The startled Schlesinger was relieved when the station identified the excerpt from Meader's album "The First Family." But he wasn't amused, says Cull. He dashed off a memo asking "what in hell a president of the United States ought to do about mimicry."
A serious debate ensued. Some Kennedy advisers thought Meader's album should be banned from broadcast. "Kennedy found it very amusing. He rose above it," says Cull, adding that Kennedy's staff nonetheless initiated measures to prohibit presidential impersonations from advertising.
But expanded TV coverage of national politics, Kennedy's growing popularity and comedy albums coming into their own made Meader's album the fastest-selling pre-Beatles LP (200,000 copies the first week, 7.5 million total).
Since then, presidential impersonations have been more of a force than a political sideshow "when it matters most," says Cull. "Presidential impersonation is an amazing window on the development of the chief executive."
Think David Frye's paranoid and insecure Nixon during Watergate insisting, "I am the president!"
During the '60s, Frye was the first impressionist to do several politicos -- Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Ronald Reagan and his uncanny "make no mistake about it!" Nixon. So on-target, so unforgiving.
"To do satire, it is a fine line," he says. "And if you cross it, it's a dangerous thing."
And lately, Frye can't help but think about toeing that fine line again. Now "semi-retired" and living in Las Vegas, he's still perfecting his "Bush Junior."
"It's like reliving what happened with Nixon," he says. "And that's when you can really take things to an extreme -- and when impressionists have more fun."
Jim Morris, a Dallas comedian who plies his trade as Bush at corporate events and on late-night TV shows and comedy specials, slips into his George W. as easily as others might put on a costume: "People ask me bout 'Raq. We have to be in 'Raq because we value human life. Unlike the people who oppose us, who deserve to die."
No matter how hard-hitting, Morris says he can't impersonate any president without empathy. "I have to feel what the character is feeling," he says. "I don't want to say he is in over his head, but things are difficult for him now. So when I do him, I do a little more stammering, and a little more uncertainty -- but I know where to get the laughs."
At most of his appearances, "The Tonight Show's" Bridges is usually introduced as "a very special guest" and enters to "Hail to the Chief."
"I come out, wave, look around, stand at the podium, and say, 'First, I want to thank you for having me. And third, I apologize for forget- ting my second point,' " says Bridges. "Some actually do think, 'Holy mackerel, it's George Bush.' Some of them stand, some of them, their jaws are down and they're clapping. It's a fun gig."
Bridges says he just goes for laughs -- though he's thankful for the president's troubles. "When a president is right about where Bush is right now," he says, "it is actually pretty good for us. People aren't as sensitive about poking fun at him."
But it always ends.
"If you're a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, you're going to have a job as long as you can look like the young Marilyn Monroe. But the thing about political look-alikes, they have a limited lifespan," says Chad Freidrichs, whose 112-minute documentary "First Impersonator," scheduled for commercial release next year, combines the story of Meader -- whose JFK comedy career ended on Nov. 22, 1963 -- with that of today's presidential impersonators.
"There's the deadline, and they're kind of rooting for their candidate to win because their job is at stake," says Freidrichs. "Their performance is limited to about eight years."
Morris, who can earn as much as $10,000 for a corporate-party appearance, says he suffers panic attacks every presidential campaign. "Oh-eight should be very interesting, especially if Hillary is in the mix," he says.
Forte deadpans, "I'm already working on my Hillary Clinton."
But Morris says second terms aren't always good for impressionists.
"By that time, everybody and their brother can do a passable impression of the president," he says. "But the impressionist has to find the hook first. The challenge is being original" -- as it were.