Piss and vinegar
WHEN JOHAN VANDE LANOTTE, Belgium's Vice Prime Minister, goes to the toilets today, he finds the urinals in the offices of his ministry decorated with stickers. They show an American flag and the head of George W. Bush. "Go ahead. Piss on me," the caption says. Vande Lanotte is one of Bush's hosts in Brussels. Is peeing on your guest's head appropriate? In Belgium it is. After all, Brussels' best known statue is that of "Manneken Pis," a peeing boy.
The piss stickers, specially made to be used in urinals, can be seen these days in the public toilets of Belgian schools, youth clubs, and pubs. They were designed by Laurent Winnock, president of the Young Socialists, the youth branch of Vande Lanotte's Socialist party. Winnock did his creative work during his office hours, which would not be worth mentioning if Winnock did not work in the offices of Vice Prime Minister Vande Lanotte, as one of his press spokesmen.
Last Friday, Belgian television asked Robert "Steve" Stevaert, the Socialist party leader, what he thought of the stickers. It had not been his idea, he stressed, but he refused to distance himself from it. He hardly could, seeing as the stickers can be ordered for free through the party's official website. For Belgian television viewers the message was clear: Bush may be our government's guest, the ministers will greet him, smile and tell him that he is most welcome, but we all know what they think of the bastard.Betsy, who is a genteel soul, does not quote the last sentence. But she does draw an amusing parallel to Benjamin Franklin, which she appears to quote from a law review article entitled "Private Ownership of Public Image: Popular Culture and Publicity Rights":
Benjamin Franklin's experience while ambassador to France is quite instructive in this regard. Shortly after his arrival in France in 1776, Franklin's likeness began to appear "on medallions, snuffboxes, rings, clocks, vases, handkerchiefs, and pocket knives." Louis XVI found this iconization of Franklin so excessive that he presented one of Franklin's devoted female admirers with a "chamber pot adorned with [Franklin's] picture."What does President Bush think about this, if he has heard of it? I suspect that he is amused. He can laugh at himself, and he has a streak of crude, rough-edged humor that occasionally slips out. And also this morning, from Jay Nordlinger we get a quote from the speech that the President gave in Brussels on Monday.
You know, on this journey to Europe, I follow in some large footsteps. More than two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin arrived on this continent to great acclaim. An observer wrote, "His reputation was more universal than Liebniz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them." The observer went on to say, "There was scarcely a peasant or citizen who did not consider him as a friend to humankind."
I've been hoping for a similar reception. But Secretary Rice told me I should be a realist.As you might imagine, that got quite a laugh. Was he thinking about Franklin's chamber pot? Perhaps not; but I would not bet against it.
Nordlinger sees in the President, as I do, a shrewd wit. He [GWB] often uses jokes to admit to a painful truth -- in this case, the low ebb of his popularity in western Europe -- and thereby rob it of its power. His humor is invariably self-depricating, which puts his listeners at ease; and because it is based on truth, it helps to open their minds to what he has to say. As a rhetorical strategy it is funny, humane, effective -- and highly intelligent.
I am a bit baffled at the idea (common among my peers) that George W. Bush is some sort of moron. Indeed, I can already hear the objections to my assessment of his use of humor. "Bush is just saying what his speechwriters give him to say." Well, yes, he does have really good speechwriters. But that misses the point a bit, doesn't it? Probably the best account we have of the relation of this President to this speechwriters comes from David Frum's book. Over time, it is the President who says, "This isn't right -- change it," or "This works -- give me more of this." And over time, the speechwriters learn to adapt themselves to what the President wants to say and how he wants to say it. This is not a man who just witlessly reads whatever script is given to him. (The same lie was told of Ronald Reagan.) This is someone who understands what words do, who treats his audience with disarming candor and respect, and who has a slightly wicked sense of fun. And in these ways, perhaps, he isn't so far from Franklin after all.
It is reasonable to disagree with the President, to think that he is wrong about a great many things. You can call him misguided, or arrogant, or wicked. But stupid? That seems a rather desperate theory.