Did President Bush show what he really thinks of the media with a flip of his middle finger? Jay Leno thinks so.
On "The Tonight Show" Wednesday, the late-night comic showed videotape of the president leaving a meeting with congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill earlier in the day and passing by a clutch of reporters shouting questions on the fate of the Central American trade pact. On the video, Bush striding away from the camera suddenly thrusts his right hand into the air and extends a finger -- precisely which one was unclear. White House officials yesterday said it was his thumb.
But there were other interpretations. "I think President Bush is getting a little fed up with the press," Leno said, and he then showed the video to much laughter from the studio audience, which seemed to see it the same way. "What was that all about, huh?" Leno asked. "You see? That's the great thing about the second term: Who cares?"
Certainly Bush does not always have charitable thoughts about journalists, and the video clip quickly made its way onto various Web sites. It was played around Washington yesterday as the curious tried to discern for themselves which presidential digit was raised. The speculation recalled last year's still-unresolved controversy over a hump that seemed to be under Bush's suit coat at one of the campaign debates.
"I was there with him, and I'm just not going to -- I'm not going to dignify that with a response," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said when asked about the finger at his daily briefing, where many days, no doubt, he harbors his own desires to finger his feelings about reporters. "I mean, I haven't seen the video that you're talking about, but I know the way the president acts. And if someone is misportraying it, that's unfortunate."
Unfortunate, but it would not be the first time someone from the administration offered raw commentary on Capitol Hill. When Vice President Cheney ran into one of his leading Democratic critics, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), on the Senate floor one day last year, words were exchanged and the normally mild-mannered veep snapped, "[Expletive] yourself."
Still, none of the journalists on the scene Wednesday reported seeing Bush make a rude gesture. Ken Herman, the Cox News Service correspondent representing other print reporters at the time, did not mention it in his pool report and said by telephone yesterday that he did not see the moment in question. "I think the video is inconclusive but leaning toward thumb," he said after examining the footage. "It's just hard to imagine."