WASHINGTON - It's apparently OK to laugh at President Bush again.
The solemnity that followed Sept. 11, 2001, has passed. The tension of the long lead-up to war with Iraq is gone. And on late-night television, the once-unassailable commander in chief is again the target of a thousand quips.
Thursday night on NBC, Jay Leno noted that temperatures in Baghdad reached 130 degrees: "It's so hot over there that soldiers looking for weapons of mass destruction were sweating almost as much as President Bush is waiting for them to find weapons of mass destruction."
After Bush hosted a barbecue on the White House lawn this week for members of Congress and their families, David Letterman of CBS said: "That's a huge cast. Of course, the contract went to Halliburton," the oil-services corporation that Dick Cheney ran before becoming vice president.
If Americans are starting to laugh at Bush again, is that an early indicator that his political standing is starting to slip? Probably not.
While it's true that many Americans get their political news and form opinions based more on what they hear on late-night TV than on what they see in conventional news media, it is also true that a president with good job-approval ratings can shrug off becoming a staple of late-night jokes. President Clinton retained high job-approval ratings all through the years that comics worked overtime mocking his foibles.
Bush's verbal missteps are favorite fodder for the late-night wits.
"President Bush met with French President Jacques Chirac," Leno observed recently. "It was kind of hard for them to communicate, `cause, you know, Chirac's English is not very good. And, of course, Bush's is even worse."
They don't stop with Bush's tendency to mangle the language. Even his status as war leader is fair game, such as his argument that Iraq had to be invaded because it could threaten America with weapons of mass destruction.
"If they have all those biological weapons, why didn't they use them when we invaded them?" asked Jon Stewart on the Comedy Channel's ``The Daily Show.''
"Because they didn't want to give us the satisfaction. That's how evil they are."
All presidents are fodder for jokes, their flaws exaggerated, their strengths lampooned. Bush was no exception - portrayed by comics as an empty-headed frat boy - until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"It wasn't like we said, `We just had a huge national tragedy, so let's lay off the president,''' said Ben Karlin, the co-executive producer and former chief writer for ``The Daily Show.'' "It just didn't feel funny. ... After 9-11, nothing seemed funny. If Bush was off limits, it was because humor was off limits."
"There was a time during the war, between Sept. 11 and Iraq, that he was sort of off limits in terms of late-night comics," said Vaughn Ververs, editor of the Hotline, a daily online roundup of political news.
"They didn't really feel comfortable in targeting him. ... Bush was very much treated with kid gloves. But since the war in Iraq has wound down, they are getting back on board with jokes about the president."
With more political bite than the big network programs, "The Daily Show" returned to making fun of Bush much earlier than more mainstream comics.
"If somebody does something we think is stupid, whether it's a president or a celebrity, we do it," Karlin said.
Eventually, Leno and Letterman resumed putting Bush jokes back into their monologues as well. Letterman even recently added a standing routine to his show, making fun of the latest Bush misstatements. Title: "The George W. Bush joke that's not really a joke."
Yet rather than shaping the nation's culture, political jokes reflect the culture and provide a natural relief valve, particularly in tough times, Karlin contends.
"The jokes," agreed Ververs of the Hotline, "are a reflection of what's out there. ... They can consolidate and solidify that image. But I don't think anybody changes their mind based on it. Heavy (Bush) supporters might find some of the jokes tasteless. People who are not supporters will find them hilarious. And people in the middle will chuckle and move on."
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder