Late on Nov. 8, 1988, the phone rang. I answered, and a familiar voice said: “Well, congratulations. You won.”
“I won? What do you mean I won?”
“Bush won, so you won,” he answered.
“YES, it’s me! JON LOVITZ! And NOW YOU are going to be the president on ‘Saturday Night Live’ for the next four years. HAPPY NOW?”
On “Saturday Night Live,” your friend’s defeat can be your victory. Comedians can be insanely competitive — the reason “class clown” is singular is because if there were two class clowns, one clown would ultimately kill the other clown.
Jon had played the Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis, during the fall of 1988 opposite my George H.W. Bush impression. We both knew that if our guy were to win we would be in a lot of cold opens, a coveted spot to start the show for at least four years.
I told Jon he had run a hard-fought campaign, and then I looked up at the TV to see that the real Michael Dukakis had just conceded to the real George H.W. Bush. The fake Dukakis had conceded to the fake Bush three minutes earlier.
The George H.W. Bush conundrum
President Ronald Reagan was an easy target. He had an impossibly low hairline, a tan, wrinkled face, a bobbling head, and as a bonus, he called his wife Mommy. He was comedy gold.
On the other hand, the first President Bush was a comedian’s nightmare. There was nothing to do an impression of — no hook. My take on him, in the early sketches, was actually kind of terrible and not particularly funny. I always had good jokes with the help of two brilliant political satirists, Al Franken and Jim Downey, but my first Bush cold opens were just O.K.
Then one late Friday night on the 17th floor of Rockefeller Center, as Franken and I sat in his office racking our brains, something unexpected happened. Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of “S.N.L.,” had asked for a Bush cold open, and in comedy terms, “we had nothing.” I was playing around, trying to make Al laugh. At one point, I raised my right arm and began rotating my hand lazily with index finger pointed — as if the hand were reaching for some thought. And then it came out — my voice flattening in a lazy syntax — “those people out there … doing that thing … doing that thing in that whole area over there.”
Al was laughing his ass off, and we both knew we had a hook. At that moment, President Bush became a character.
In the ensuing months, a lot of sub-hooks and hand gestures were added. And ultimately, if President Bush said, “Not going to do it,” I said, “Na Ga Da It.” That’s actually how it was written on the cue card. I could tell you more, but it wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.
Lincoln Bedroom: Been there, done that
On Dec. 4 1992, I was on the phone with Lovitz. Again. I heard a beep indicating call waiting.
“Hold on a sec, Jon.”
“This is White House operator No. 1. Please hold for the President.”
“Sorry Jon, I got to take this call.”
“What? You got a BIGGER name on the other line?!”
Suddenly I’m on the phone with President Bush, who had lost his bid for re-election the month before. I’m more than a bit nervous.
“How ya doing, Dana?”
“Doing fine, thanks, Mr. President”
“Well Dana, wondering if you would consider coming out to the White House and help cheer up the staff. Folks are a little down. Could use a laugh.”
Wow, I thought to myself. I make fun of him for years, he loses the election, and now he wants me to come to Washington and cheer up the staff? I was caught off guard, and the first thing that popped out of my mouth was, “Well, uh, where would I stay?”
It felt stupid as soon as I said it. I had just asked the president of the United States to book a hotel for me. There was a long pause. Then, “Well, you could, uh, stay right here in the White House, with Bar and me.” Two weeks later my wife, Paula, and I put our luggage down in the Lincoln Bedroom.
(Dear reader: At this point you are probably thinking: Lincoln Bedroom, wow! Is it gorgeous? Yes. Is it awe-inspiring? Yes. Did my wife and I make love in the Lincoln Bedroom? I’m not going to say, but my son’s middle name is ABE.)
Soon we were sitting in a beautiful living room. I was in my one and only suit, drinking a beer. Across from us, the President and Mrs. Bush, and another couple who were longtime friends, were having cocktails. There was a bit of awkward small talk, then the president said, “You know, Dana, I never thought your impression of me was nasty — never hit below the belt.”
I smiled and nodded. That was nice to hear. Then: “Hey Dana, why don’t you do that impression you do of me for everybody right here, right now.” I froze. Suddenly my impression seemed like a grotesque representation of the actual man.
“Uh, it’s not very good … uh, it doesn’t really sound like you … it’s just a weird voice … like John Wayne trying to do Mister Rogers.”
The president smiled, index fingers raised. “Don’t tell me you’re NA GA DA IT.”
I started to sweat. I chugged the rest of my beer. “Got an idea!” the president said. “Secret Service guy right outside the door. His name is Brian — why don’t you use my voice and see if you can trick him into thinking it’s me.” Everybody stared at me in anticipation. So I did it.
“HEY BRIAN, I KNOW YOU’RE DOING THAT SECRET SERVICE THING, BUT CAN YOU COME IN HERE FOR A SECOND!”
The agent opened the door and leaned his head, looking slightly confused. “Its O.K., Brian, just having a little fun!” the president said.
(Dear Reader, everything you’ve just read is true but the quotes may not be word-for-word accurate. I didn’t have a tape recorder. I have one now.)
The next day I met with the president in the Oval Office with his advisers. The plan was that the staff would be assembled in the East Wing, “Hail to the Chief” would play, and I would come out as George Bush to the surprise and delight of everyone.
So there I was, hidden off to the side of the room, which was packed. I was nervous. They loved the president. How would they react to me? “Hail to the Chief” began playing, I emerged from the alcove and started doing Bush making a Santa’s list.
“Love socks, stripy socks, also would love a pumpkin-colored tie — very festive, very pumpkiny.” Trust me, it’s killing, and I could see the president laughing really hard. I pulled out all the stops — “NA GA DA IT,” “wouldn’t be prudent,” “Santa doing that thing he does in that whole area over there.” Eventually the real Bush came up, and he did me doing him in front of me, and then I did him doing me in front of him. Paula and Barbara were behind us laughing.
But there was definitely a sense of melancholy in the air. A new administration was coming in, and a lot of these people would be saying goodbye very soon. The president, being who he was, was only thinking about others. I was just relieved it all worked out.
A friendship begins
Later that day, my wife and I accompanied the president and the first lady to the Kennedy Center, where outstanding artists were awarded for their contributions to the arts. (Another generous gesture from the president — my work was done, but we were still hanging out.)
The recipients that year included Lionel Hampton, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. We settled into our box seats high up in the theater, and I noticed that all four of us had a Secret Service agent seated behind us. I asked Barbara Bush about it, and she said that it was standard protocol since, “you know, Lincoln.”
During a break in the show, I happened upon Newman, who had apparently referred to Vice President Dan Quayle in some derogatory manner in the press.
“I’m trying to avoid him,” he said. “He knows I think he’s a moron.” Just then Quayle approached, and Paul skedaddled back to his seat.
Just as the show ended, Walter Cronkite, the host, looked up to the balcony where we all were sitting and, in his booming voice, congratulated President Bush “on behalf of a grateful nation” for his 50 years of public service. Then the entire audience stood up, faced us and gave him a loud, lengthy ovation.
It seemed to catch the president off guard. The Secret Service whisked us away to a small elevator, and I looked up to see the president with tears running down his cheeks. No one said a word. My wife and I had known the Bushes for only 30 hours, and there we were, sharing this intimate family moment.
And so began my lucky 25-year friendship with “Barbara and George.” My wife and I happily received Christmas cards every year, as well as other postcards and letters. When I had a health scare in 1998, President Bush wrote to me to ask: “Can I do anything Dana? We’ve got great doctors right here in Houston.” When we did charity events together, I did my Ross Perot impression for him, and he would always laugh.
On Election Day in 2004, I got a surprise call. Again, the voice was familiar.
“Hi, Dana. George Bush here. How ya doing?”
“Hi, Mr. President. Uh, isn’t your son running for re-election today?”
“Yeah. But how are you doing?”
“I’m fine thanks. How’s the election looking?”
“Don’t know yet. But Bar and I saw you on some ‘S.N.L.’ reruns last night and wondered how you were doing.”
That was who he was. Always making sure everybody else was O.K.
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