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BUSH'S POETIC VISION

Gulf War Blues and Haikus

By Matt Taibbi


[Eds. note: As part of the continuing series of articles, "The Bush Years: A Look Back," The BEAST proudly publishes this excerpt from the recently released memoir of former White House aide Mort Weinstein. Entitled Light as a Shallow River: My Haiku Presidency (Viking, 2009), the book chronicles one of the more extraordinary accomplishments of the Bush White House: the introduction of haiku composition into the daily presidential routine. Weinstein, who had previously served as the entire African, Near-Eastern and Jewish literature faculty at Texas A&M, was the White House's official haiku instructor from 2003-2007. Though his accomplishments were largely unseen by the public, it is widely accepted that he was the primary influence behind the much-commended openness, simplicity and impressionistic character of internal White House memoranda throughout Bush's tumultuous second term. In this excerpt, he describes an early instructional session with the president in the spring of 2003.]

IN THE BEGINNING, I was still quite uncomfortable with the protocol. Before I could even enter the Oval Office I had to clear the themes of the day with Andy Card-who initially was, I must say, quite hostile to the entire exercise. No matter how many times I explained to him that the haiku is not planned but rather felt at the moment, that its essence lies in its very spontaneity, Andy insisted that the conceptual guidelines for each lesson be cleared in advance. At my second session, I remember, the images we settled on before I visited the president were tree, puddle and cumulus clouds. Andy rejected outright a fourth suggestion.

"Let's not have anything sandy today, Weinstein," he snapped. "We've got enough goddamn sand as it is."

It was May 15, 2003. As much as I tried not to pay attention to the daily terrestrial concerns of the administration-in my experience, too much attention to the news can weaken one's grasp of the critical concept of karumi, or lightness-it was hard not to notice the obvious tension weighing on the presidency that day. When I entered the Oval Office, in fact, Scott McClellan was finishing up his daily briefing of the president: The tidings were bad.

"And lastly, Mr. President," he was saying, "we can expect questions about the 15 G.I.s who were massacred today in that ambush in Najaf. We've prepared the usual response."

The president, who had taken an immediate liking to me in our first session, ignored him as he swung around in his chair and, smiling, tossed me a friendly wave. Silently he moved his lips, mouthing the words, "Hi, Mort!"

I waved back. The president waved again, then swung around in his chair to face McClellan. "What was that, Scott?" he barked. "I missed that."

"Mr. President, I was speaking of the 15 soldiers who were killed in Najaf today," McClellan repeated.

The president frowned. "Killed?" he said. "Why?"

"In the war, Mr. President."

"War!" the president said, banging his fist on his desk. "Where?"

McClellan sighed. "In Iraq, Mr. President."

The president frowned again. "Iraq?" he said. "Again?"

"No, Mr. President," McClellan said. "It's still the same one."

The president shook his head, taking that in. "Well, you're telling me something there," he said. "I would have thought that one was over by now." He pointed at me. "But Scott, listen, have you seen this thing? This is really something. Mort, can you give him one of those things? Give him a really good one."

"A good one, Mr. President?"

"Yeah," he said. "A really good one. Like with a dog in it."

I shrugged, taking a second to think, then recited:

Morning in the field
Races for the tennis ball
Receives a biscuit

"Hot damn!" the president said, clapping his hands. "You ever hear such a thing, Scott?"

"It's very good, Mr. President," McClellan said.

"Receives a biscuit," the president said, shaking his head in wonder. "Because that's exactly what would happen!"

"Yes, Mr. President."

McClellan stood on his toes with his hands behind his back, waiting to be dismissed, but the president wasn't paying attention to him. He was chuckling to himself, visualizing something. Finally he sat up in his chair. "Hey, Mort," he said. "Whaddya think? Can I try one? Scott, stick around. I'm gonna try one."

McClellan grit his teeth. "Yes, certainly, Mr. President."

"How does it go again?" the president asked, turning to me.

"Sir," I said. "Simply clear your mind and picture the first thing that comes into your head-"

"A toaster!" the president burst out. "It's a toaster!"

I nodded. "Certainly, sir, a toaster. Now, just put that picture of a toaster into words. It's three lines, sir. The first line is five syllables, the second seven syllables-"

"Never mind that!" he said. "How many words do I use?"

"Well, sir," I said. "That depends. If they're long words, not too many, but if they're short words-"

He frowned. "Is 'toaster' a long word or a short word?"

"It's…a medium word, sir."

He paused, troubled for a moment, then smiled suddenly. "Well, hell, what difference does it make?" he said. "Why don't I just do it, and then we'll see, okay?"

I smiled. "Of course, Mr. President," I said. "In fact, you've just hit upon the whole essence of haiku, sir. It seeks to transcend the traditional limitations of linear language and simply connect-"

He snapped his fingers. "Okay, I've got it," he said.

He paused and looked straight ahead, directly between myself and McClellan, at a spot on the carpet.

"Toaster," he began.

He paused again, closing his eyes.

"Toaster…" he hummed.

He took a deep breath. Then he recited:

Toaster
Is a medium word
Receives a biscuit!

He opened his eyes.

"Well," he said, holding up his hands. "Whaddya think?"

McClellan clapped. "It's wonderful, Mr. President."

He shook his head, chuckling to himself. "I'm glad you think so, Scott," he said. "Because-because it feels wonderful."

I smiled. We were really getting somewhere. And not just the three of us, but the whole country. Perhaps soon the feeling would reach the soldier in the sand.