Bush shows his sensitive side, telling blind journalist: 'I'm interested in the shade look'

Bantering with the reporters who cover him, and assigning them nicknames, is part of George Bush's style. But at his White House press conference this week the joking went a shade too far.

"Are you going to ask that question with shades on?" the President playfully inquired of Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times, who had asked Mr Bush what he had learnt from the CIA leak imbroglio. The reporter offered to take them off but Mr Bush pressed on. "I'm interested in the shade look, seriously," he said, noting for good measure that "there's no sun". Deftly Mr Wallsten replied, "I guess it depends on your perspective." "Touché," Mr Bush said, in a rare lapse into French. But beneath the give-and-take lies a more serious tale. Mr Wallsten, it transpires, is partly blind as a result of macular degeneration, and has to wear sunglasses to protect his eyes from glare.

Mr Bush, it must be said, had no idea of this. On being informed later, he called the reporter to apologise. "He said he was sorry, he didn't know, he felt bad about it," Mr Wallsten said. "I told him he didn't need to apologise, I wasn't offended." Mr Bush then told him, apparently, "it's a sign of affection when I needle you guys", and Mr Wallsten assured him in return that he wanted to be treated in exactly the same way as his colleagues. Next time however, the President promised, "I'll use a different needle". But make no mistake, the needling and the nicknames will continue. Seating plans at Presidential press conferences are meticulous, and Mr Bush knows exactly who is where. Soon familiar faces are assigned names.

The Associated Press man is called "AP Person". The 6ft 6in Richard Keil of Bloomberg News is "Stretch" - though anyone who is super-tall qualifies. Mr Bush is wont to refer to a 6ft 5in television reporter as "Little Stretch", and to an even taller former member of the White House press corps as "Super Stretch". The technique works at several levels. For ordinary Americans who find themselves watching a Bush news conference, the repartee - coupled with the frequent lapses in the presidential syntax - serves to humanise him. This ability to come across as a "regular guy" is one of Mr Bush's most valuable political weapons.

Meanwhile, the reporter on the receiving end of the teasing finds it harder to ask a tough question. Brushing aside the familiarities can come across as graceless and even insulting, given a President's position as not only head of government but head of state as well. In Britain, it's easy to be cheeky to Tony Blair - far less so to the Queen.

Finally, Mr Bush's joking is a subtle, slightly condescending assertion of primacy. He may be smiling, and the reporter may at first feel flattered by this evidence of intimacy with the most powerful man on the planet.

But you cannot miss the edge. In the past this President has made little secret of his basic scorn for the media. Mr Bush's message on these occasions is unspoken but unmistakeable. He is the doer and - to use his recent coinage - the "decider". The reporters, particularly the scribes among them, are mere prattlers, bystanders at history, whose task is merely to chronicle its making.

This feeling was most recently on display at Wednesday's press conference. Asked a question by a radio reporter, Mr Bush cracked the old joke about someone having "a good face for radio". At another moment, after calling on a stand-in reporter, the President remarked, "Not a bad question from a substitute guy." Were they flattered - or insulted? The nicknames too can cut both ways. Take Karl Rove, top aide and architect of the President's election victories. Mr Bush has referred to him as "Boy Genius", but also as "Turd Blossom" - named after a Texas flower that thrives in cowpats - to cut him down to size.

Nor does a nickname guarantee lasting friendship. Take the case of Kenneth Lay, the former chairman of Enron, known by his fellow Texan President as "Kenny Boy" in happier times. "Kenny Boy", however, became "Kenny Who?" once Enron began its precipitous slide into bankruptcy in 2001.

Pardon, Mr President?

* At a presidential gala in 2002, President Bush spotted the singer Stevie Wonder sitting nearby and tried to attract the blind singer's attention by waving. Unsurprisingly, Wonder did not respond.

* White House aides were forced quickly to correct a Bush remark during Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to the US in April after he referred to China as the Republic of China - the official name for Taiwan. China itself is the People's Republic of China.

* During a press conference in Beijing last year, the President's attempt to make a quick but dignified getaway from reporters was thwarted when he tried to exit the room through a locked door. An aide had to show him the way out.

* Mr Bush met his match early on in his presidency in the form of a humble pretzel, on which he choked. "My mother always said when you're eating pretzels, chew before you swallow," he said later.

* In June 2002 Mr Bush decided to forgo reading the safety manual for his new Segway scooter before taking a ride on his family estate. The makers advise users to wear a helmet and "get a friend to act as your spotter", but the President ignored both pieces of advice and promptly fell off.

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