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Fragrant armpits, napping aides, corny duck jokes: George H.W. Bush’s wonderful humor

His gift for making people laugh will be highlighted when the 41st president is eulogized Wednesday

President George H.W. Bush laughs while attending the annual White House Correspondents Association awards dinner in 1988. (Stelios Varias/Reuters)
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When George H.W. Bush was vice president, he sat down one night for a quiet dinner in Boise, Idaho.

What he ordered that evening is less germane to this anecdote than the fishbowl-like setting in which he ate — a restaurant whose entire front was made of glass.

Suddenly, Secret Service agents were alerted to a person with a sawed-off shotgun outside.

“So, very quickly the agents took the vice president and put him under the table, the tablecloth coming down the side,” John Magaw, Bush’s head of security then, remembered in a Netflix documentary.

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The agents then piled on top of him, a circumstance that unavoidably left the vice president of the United States with a somewhat undesirable source of oxygen — the sweaty armpit of an agent squeezing Bush’s face until the threat subsided.

The next day, Bush walked to the back of plane, found the agent whose armpit had nestled his face, and handed him a can of deodorant spray. “Yours wasn’t bad,” he said, as Magaw recalled the episode. “But I think this is better. Please use this from now on.”

The moment was pure George H.W. Bush, according to his son George W. Bush, the nation’s 43rd president.

“When he needled, he never needled to harm or to hurt,” the younger Bush said in the documentary. “He needled to enliven and enhance the spirit.”

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His gift for making people laugh will be a comfort when the 41st president, who died last week at 94, is eulogized Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral. And Bush knew how to laugh at himself.

In the waning days of his presidency, after he’d been defeated by Bill Clinton, Bush called Dana Carvey, his “Saturday Night Live” impersonator, and invited him to the White House to skewer the president in person at a staff Christmas party. Together, they slew.

Here's a look back at "Saturday Night Live" cast member Dana Carvey's sketches of former president George H.W. Bush. (Video: The Washington Post)

‘Wouldn’t be prudent’: George H.W. Bush’s unlikely friendship with Dana Carvey

Bush always gave as good as he got. The target could be anyone — one of his children, a trusted aide, an ally, an enemy. Could his joking be racy? Yes. Could it be corny? Absolutely.

“What other commander in chief wore a bunny tie on Easter and a pumpkin tie on Halloween?” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote this week, remembering her time covering Bush as a White House beat reporter. “Who else would go to the magic shop near the White House and fill his office with items like a red rope that turned white, a calculator that squirted water and cash on a string so you could yank it back when someone tried to pick it up?”

The jokes were sometimes lost on his audience.

Chicago Tribune reporter Ellen Warren remembered the time on his presidential campaign that Bush told this whopper to a baffled audience at a Waffle House in South Carolina: “Did you hear the one about the duck that went into the bar? Bartender looked at the duck and said, ‘Your pants are down.’ ”

It’s okay if you don’t get it. Neither did the potential Waffle House voters.

Warren wrote, “When they looked at him, puzzled, the Most Powerful Man on Earth gamely explained: Ducks? Covered in down? Get it?”


Sometimes Bush’s humor was unintentional — the result of him mangling metaphors and, sometimes, the English language.

Here are some examples:

“It's no exaggeration to say the undecideds could go one way or another."

And: “If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t hit his tail on the ground. Too hypothetical."

Another: “For seven and a half years I’ve worked alongside President Reagan. We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex — uh, setbacks.”

Finally, and authoritatively: “Fluency in English is something that I'm often not accused of."

Bush was a competitive guy — and even that was a source of hilarity for him.

For instance, “the Scowcroft Award,” named after Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s national security adviser. The purpose of the award: to honor the White House aide who most often fell asleep during important meetings. Scowcroft was a legendary meeting sleeper — “almost a narcoleptic,” according James Baker, Bush’s chief of staff.

Robert Gates, President Barack Obama’s defense secretary and a member of Bush’s administration, recalled during the Netflix documentary that the competition had three criteria:


“How long did they sleep?” Gates said.

The depth of sleep.

“Snoring or whistling always got you extra points,” Gates said.

And finally, quality of recovery.

Did the sleeper awaken gently, fully rested and ready to participate? Or, in Gates’ words, were they “one of these folks who awoke with a jerk and spilled the coffee?”

The winners (and losers) aren’t known to the general public, but that doesn’t matter. Now, after Bush’s passing, the world is learning more about what it was like to be around him.

“Let me give you a little serious, political, inside advice,” he once said during a fundraiser. “One single word: puppies. Worth 10 points, believe me.”

Read more Retropolis:

For George H.W. Bush, Pearl Harbor changed everything. World War II made him a hero.

George H.W. Bush left a note to Bill Clinton. It’s an artifact of political humility.

‘One last time’: Barbara Bush had already faced a death more painful than her own

Why Melania Trump, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton attended Barbara Bush’s funeral