Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, June 16, 2006
From the looks of it, it wasn’t a big deal. At a White House press conference on Wednesday, President Bush took a question from Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times. Here was the exchange, as transcribed by the White House (including the White House’s laugh track):
Yes, Peter. Are you going to ask that question with shades on?
Q I can take them off.
THE PRESIDENT: I'm interested in the shade look, seriously.
Q All right, I'll keep it, then.
THE PRESIDENT: For the viewers, there's no sun. (Laughter.)
Q I guess it depends on your perspective. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Touch . (Laughter.)
What the president didn’t know, but should have if he intended to riff on the subject, is that Peter Wallsten wears the shades because of a degenerative condition called Stagardt’s disease. It’s rare, but a person’s straight-on vision gradually deteriorates while peripheral vision remains more or less fair. The condition is alleviated with shades. Obviously, Peter Wallsten wasn’t trying to look like lead characters on television cop shows set in Miami. In fairness to the president, his straight-away vision may be as good as tunnel-vision, while his peripheral vision is non-existent. He couldn’t be expected to know about something like Stagardt’s disease. It’s like expecting him to know, say, the names of foreign leaders, or to show a little curiosity about nuances between war and peace. When informed about Wallsten’s condition by his aides, the president called him and apologized. A good sport, Wallsten would tell reporters that he thought the president had been funny on the phone, and that his only complaint as a reporter was that Bush hadn’t answered his question at the news conference, about the Valerie Plame leak case and whether Bush had “ learned anything that you didn't know before about what was going on in your administration,” and whether he would have “any work to do to rebuild credibility that might have been lost?” Bush, of course, ducked. Nothing new there. The joke about the shades seems a minor matter. But it has an 1812 Overture ring of familiarity to it—the president’s blind assumptions, his preference for gutty, if not gutter, wit over a slightly more thought-out approach. And of course there’s the symbolism of it: it’s about vision, stupid. For a president enamored of “the vision thing,” there was more to the Wallsten gaffe than—forgive the shiner—met the eye. There was more to it on the press’ part too. Naturally the news reports rallied around Wallsten, and the jokes were at Bush’s expense. But in the end it was still the press corps and the White House yuk-yukking away at their clubbish jokes, and accepting to leave it at that, while questions remain unanswered. The president has gotten away with idiotic humor about matters of state for five years because the press corps let him. The Wallsten gaffe shows how: in the end, both sides ensure that their protocol is preserved, that the game goes on, that the president’s contempt for answers is respected, that the press corps’ deference to the humiliator-in-chief is reaffirmed, along with its irrelevance.