Bush's Fart-Joke Legacy
It didn't start with Dubya.
Bob Woodward reports in his new book, State of Denial, that President Bush loves to swap fart jokes with Karl Rove. Before a morning senior staff meeting in 2005, Woodward reports, Bush schemed to have Rove sit in a chair that triggered some sort of high-tech whoopee cushion activated by remote control. The prank was postponed in deference to news of the al-Qaida bombings in London. When the gag was carried out two weeks later, the room erupted in riotous laughter while Rove hunted down the culprit.
Perhaps you are puzzled that the president of the United States would embrace so eagerly a genre of humor that the typical male Homo sapiens stops finding irresistible around the age of 12. But Woodward is not the first to report on Bush's fondness for fart jokes, and Bush is not the first member of his family to display this particular affliction.
It might seem logical to trace Bush's love of fart jokes to his earthy Texas roots, and therefore to interpret it as a laudable democratic streak in the president's character. But fart jokes (as opposed to jokes about and allusions to feces, particularly those of the male bovine) have never loomed large in the Lone Star state. To see where Bush acquired this enthusiasm, it is necessary to look to his patrician WASP forebears.
A robust tradition of fart jokes exists within Anglo-Saxon culture, going back at least as far as Chaucer, and the fart joke holds a venerated place in English politics. Legend has it that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, once farted in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I, whereupon he went into exile for seven years. On his return, the queen reputedly greeted, "My lord, we had quite forgot the fart." The story is no likelier true than the oft-repeated claim that de Vere wrote Shakespeare's plays, but its persistence testifies to a certain fascination. In the early 17th century, a fart during debate in the House of Commons inspired a satirical poem called "The Parliament Fart." It enjoyed wide and enthusiastic circulation for the next half-century. James Joyce's Ulysses, which many consider the United Kingdom's greatest contribution to world literature in the 20th century, has been described—by one of its admirers—as "a giant fart joke" dressed up with "references to English literature and all kinds of obscure learning." (The word itself appears four times, according to Amazon's search engine.)
Turning to the Bush clan, we learn in Kitty Kelley's book The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynastythat New Yorker writer Brendan Gill was once a guest of George H.W. and Barbara Bush at their summer house in Kennebunkport, Maine. Stumbling through the place late at night in search of something to read, the only volume he could find was The Fart Book. (It was therefore likely in vain that Chairman Mao, attempting to shock Bush père when he was U.S. liaison to China, used a Chinese vulgarism that translated to "dog fart," according to Tom Wicker's George Herbert Walker Bush: A Penguin Life.)
The most flatuphilic Bush family member appears to be Jonathan J. Bush, brother to the 41st president and uncle to the 43rd. In 2003, Lloyd Grove of the New YorkDaily News reported that Jonathan J., a money manger in Connecticut, stockpiled remote-control fart machines (possibly the same model used against Karl Rove) and gave them away as a gag to friends and relatives:
"Flatulation devices — that's the clinical term," says health-care executive Jonathan S. Bush, who spoke for his father on this explosive issue. "My father likes to make people laugh with hilarious jokes. Ever since his brother George was in the White House, his great claim has always been that he is one joke removed from the presidency."
Describing his father, Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, to the Washington Post in 1986, Jonathan J. Bush said: "I never heard him fart." What at the time seemed an aptly humorous way to describe the probity of the Bush family's political patriarch may now require reconsideration as an earnest expression of filial regret. Grove further reported that Jonathan J.'s other son, Billy Bush, liked to set off his dad's fart machine at the offices of Access Hollywood, where Billy worked as a reporter. Of his cousin George W. Bush, Billy told Grove, "George was a great one for whoopee cushions when he was a drinking man and a cutup, but I'd be surprised if he was into that sort of thing anymore."
Guess again, Billy. On Aug. 20 of this year, the following appeared in U.S. News & World Report's "Washington Whispers" column under the subhead, "Animal House in Washington":
He loves to cuss, gets a jolly when a mountain biker wipes out trying to keep up with him, and now we're learning that the first frat boy loves flatulence jokes. A top insider let that slip when explaining why President Bush is paranoid around women, always worried about his behavior. But he's still a funny, earthy guy who, for example, can't get enough of fart jokes. He's also known to cut a few for laughs, especially when greeting new young aides, but forget about getting people to gas about that.
Woodward, it appears, doesn't know the half of it. Inadvertently joining in the fun, in 2000 the Houston Chronicle (according to Texas Monthly's "Bum Steer Awards") mistranslated into Spanish the inaugural theme of President Bush's second gubernatorial term, "Together We Can." Instead of Juntos Podemos,the paper translated the phrase as Juntos Pedemos, which means "Together We Fart." Similarly serendipitous is a doll resembling President Bush created by Richard Halpern of Los Angeles. He calls it the "Pull My Finger President." You pull the finger and, well … listen for yourself.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.