Bush's bulge.

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
Oct. 20 2004 4:47 PM

The Box on Bush's Back

Rumors, denials, and wild speculation—a comprehensive guide.

The bulging rumor mill
The bulging rumor mill

Wonder how the Bush-bulge scuffle got its start?

While the blogger Joseph Cannon's girlfriend was watching the first presidential debate, she noticed something odd: An object seemed to be protruding from President Bush's back. Cannon posted the observation on his blog, Cannonfire, and suggested that the president might have been wired. Immediately after the debate, posters to this thread on NYC Indymedia.com also began to speculate that Bush was wired because, they wrote, he hesitated strangely and said, "Let me finish—" when no one seemed to have interrupted him. Soon after, bloggers posted  audio clips  of the questionable exchange and photos of the bulge online.

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Was it a radio transmitter? A pucker in the president's jacket? Something else entirely? The questions launched the most interesting rumors to circulate this campaign season. Here, Slate presents a comprehensive guide to the best theories, photos, video clips, denials, and testimony—expert and otherwise—available on the Web.

A few sites are devoted entirely to the controversy, most notably IsBushWired? and BushWired. IsBushWired? and Cannonfire have tried to construct the case that Bush regularly uses radio transmitters to receive guidance from his aides. They cite articles and blog posts written long before the debate speculating that Bush has worn an earpiece, including during a press conference with French President Jacques Chirac in June and during a speech on the night of Sept. 11. To see a video clip of the press conference, click here. They even cobble together photo albums of previous Bush bulges—some more peculiar-looking than others. To see one collection, click here. To view another, click here.

Some of the charges are particularly flimsy. Both Cannonfire and IsBushWired? devoted long posts to one of Bush's translators who says he's convinced Bush wears an earpiece. His evidence? Bush sounded smart during a meeting with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. "During those 90 minutes, President Bush not only covered all the points, he covered them quite well and without any notes!" the interpreter writes. "Not once during the entire meeting did he look at any notes or receive cues from anyone present in discussing the Indonesian political situation with depth and intelligence. I was astonished!"

Cannonfire has also examined what kind of technology Bush might have been using. To look at one type of transmitter Cannon considered, visit this site. Cannon also wonders if Bush is might have used a cochlear implant or a "tooth phone." To learn more about "tooth phones," check out thisScience World article.

Salon's Dave Lindorff joined the fray about a week after the first debate with an article that skeptically examined the speculation. Lindorff confirmed that the bulge had not been doctored into the images circulating online. And he addressed the widespread "claim that the Bush administration insisted on a condition that no cameras be placed behind the candidates," which some bloggers found suspicious. Lindorff spoke with an official for the Commission on Presidential Debates who "said the condition was indeed real, the result of negotiations by both campaigns." (To read the rules governing the presidential debates, click here. To read a Slatepiece on Fox's decision to disregard the camera restrictions, click here.)

Once Salon published its story, the New York Timesand Washington Postran short pieces on the dust-up and got the administration to comment on the rumors. In both pieces, the Bush campaign flatly denied that the president had anything odd under his jacket and dismissed the rumors as conspiracy theories. The campaign also specifically told the Times that Bush had not been wearing a bulletproof vest. As they received more inquiries that week, Bush's spokesmen became more jocular. (To read a campaign spokesman counter that Elvis is moderating the third debate, click here. To hear Bush campaign manager Kevin Mehlman suggest on Meet the Press that Bush is an alien, click here.)

Eventually, though, the president's aides called in his tailor to examine the pictures. Georges de Paris, who has personally made suits for every president since Lyndon Johnson, claims that the bulge was merely a "pucker" of the jacket's seam that rose when the president crossed his arms. At least one "master tailor," Frank Shattuck, disagreed. To read Shattuck's assertions that something fishy was going on, read thisNew York Daily News article.

In the most recent posts, bloggers have forwarded alternative theories, many of them concerning Bush's health. Was Bush wearing a back brace? Ungodly Politics suggests he might have been and posts photos of a model wearing a back brace that would create a lump of the proper shape and size.

Could it have been an insulin pump? Perhaps Bush was using one to treat diabetes brought on by days of heavy drinking, this letter to Salon suggests (scroll down to read the letter). Could it have been some other medical device, like a portable defibrillator that could prevent cardiac arrest? Some sites, including this one (Theory No. 2), point out that Bush has a family history of irregular heartbeats.

Or maybe the president has had a stroke, and the boxlike bulge on his back was a machine dispensing medication. In this thread on DailyKos, posters debate the merits of this far-fetched scenario. "Check Bush's mouth, where the spittle was coming out," the first post reads. "It's slightly droopy. If you go back and look at video from his earlier days, his mouth isn't drooping, that side of his face is far more animated."

Louisa Thomas is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

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