The mystery of Bush's bulge.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 12 2004 1:20 AM

Bush's Bulge

The conspiracy theorists are surely wrong. But what is it?

Sometimes a rectangle is just a rectangle
Sometimes a rectangle is just a rectangle

DENVER—An exchange Monday morning between two reporters on the Bush press bus: Q: "What do you think about the lump on his back?" A: "Probably benign."

Da-dum-crash. The reporter's response was meant as a joke, but it's a fair assessment of the attitude of the White House press corps toward the run of stories on the strange rectangular shape seen beneath Bush's suit jacket during the first presidential debate. Some reporters argue that the rectangle is an optical illusion, while others think there just isn't enough evidence of anything for a story. My take: Lefty bloggers are undermining their case by making the huge, completely unsupported leap that Bush was wearing an earpiece wired into an audio box on his back. If Bush is Karl Rove's Rupert Jee, why was his debate performance so miserable? White House communications director Dan Bartlett insinuated as much in Spin Alley after the second debate. A reporter said to him, Bush didn't repeat himself as much as he did last week. What changed? Bartlett's tongue-in-cheek reply: "The guy who was speaking into the audio box—did you hear? He had an audio box in the first one—kept repeating the things to tell him to say, so he kept repeating them."

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But just because some conspiracy theorists—some of whom were peddling the same theory four years ago—are making assertions that aren't supported by the evidence doesn't mean that the weird rectangular shape under Bush's coat doesn't exist. If you suspect the still images from the debate have been doctored, watching the video will erase your doubts. Let's go to the tape: Click here to open the video of the debate posted on the Web site of the Washington Post. Right-click on the video to open it in a separate RealPlayer window. Fast-forward to the 14:55 mark, and you'll see the mysterious rectangle.

What is it? I haven't the faintest clue. But I do think it's a legitimate topic of discussion. Umbrella Man didn't shoot John F. Kennedy, but that doesn't mean there wasn't an Umbrella Man. And just because conspiracy theorists are wrong about JFK doesn't mean his assassination isn't worthy of inquiry.

How many electoral votes does the AFC West get? Denver Broncos football coach Mike Shanahan appeared with Bush and Gen. Tommy Franks at a rally Monday at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Morrison, Colo. Earlier this year, Bush visited the Wisconsin training camp of the Kansas City Chiefs, a divisional rival of the Broncos. Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil was asked whether he would welcome Kerry to visit his training camp, too. Vermeil's answer: "Not necessarily." The two other coaches in the division, Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner, coach in the safe Democratic state of California, so maybe Bush doesn't care about their votes.

Which Terrorist Is Kerry? Part 2: Mike Pesca of Day to Day dug up a "run but can't hide" quote by President Bush that I missed during my weekend search of White House transcripts. Here's the president on Feb. 5, 2002, in Pittsburgh, on the subject of Osama Bin Laden: "There's no cave deep enough for him to hide. He can run and he thinks he can hide, but we're not going to give up."

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.