In early December 1992, a month after Bill Clinton had whipped him in the election, President George H.W. Bush held a holiday party for his deflated staffers.
They were in for a big surprise.
A couple of weeks earlier, Bush had called Dana Carvey, his “Saturday Night Live” impersonator, and invited him to the White House to do what Carvey had been doing nearly every week the previous year: to play Bush, goofy warts and all.
Carvey was startled by the call. His version of Bush, who died Friday at 94, was never mean, though also not particularly flattering. In Carvey’s rendering, Bush was a little more weird, a little more out of control with his hands, a little more prone to inexplicable, staccato phraseology.
“None of us want war in that whole area out over there,” Carvey said as Bush in the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, pointing and waving his finger as if it was having a seizure. This wouldn’t be like Vietnam either, he promised. Other countries were chipping in.
“From Mexico, salsa,” Carvey said. “Chunky style. Makes you hungry.”
Carvey accepted Bush’s invitation, though not before airing out his conscience.
“He told me I’ve tried not to cross the line of fairness,” Bush wrote in his diary. “I told him I didn’t think he had.”
In the East Room that day, with hundreds of staff members packed in, “Hail to the Chief” began playing.
Out strolled Carvey — to laughter, hollering and pure delight.
He took the lectern, waving and gyrating his hands. The real Bush walked in a few seconds later but stood in the crowd.
Carvey started in with some Bushisms, then broke out of character in laughter.
“This is very, very strange,” he said.
In the Lincoln Bedroom the night before, Carvey said he called down to the Secret Service as the president.
“Feel like going jogging tonight,” Carvey said. “In the nude. . . . Fully unclothed.”
Then Carvey let everyone in on how he played Bush so well.
“You start out with Mister Rogers,” Carvey said. “Then you add a little John Wayne.”
Suddenly, you have, as Carvey put it with wild hand gyrations, “George Herbert Walker Bush.”
The crowd cheered and applauded, including Bush.
There was more to the voice and the hand gestures, of course.
Carvey was the vehicle for some brilliant phrases and lines, many of which were written by comedian Al Franken, who went on to become a U.S. senator from Minnesota. The most famous Carvey/Bush phrase of that moment: “Wouldn’t be prudent, wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture,” the character would say.
After a few minutes, Carvey invited Bush to reclaim his lectern.
Bush, who took the loss to Clinton hard, was all smiles as he and wife Barbara approached Carvey. The fake Bush and the real Bush then had a good time waving their hands around.
The scene, now more than 25 years in the past, feels even further away. Carvey and Bush went on to become good friends, talking frequently and trading letters, including when Carvey was having heart problems.
In the current political climate, one cannot reasonably imagine President Donald Trump inviting Alec Baldwin, who skewers him on SNL, to the White House. Everything is meaner now. What feels like satire is actually an attack.
That was not so with Bush and Carvey.
“Dana has given me a lot of laughs,” Bush said to the East Room audience, “and the fact that we can laugh at each other is a very fundamental thing.”
Carvey stood off to the side, beaming.
Bush, coming out of his election malaise, began to speak with a hopeful, though also wistful, tone.
“And so, let me take this opportunity once again to thank Dana Carvey for brightening our lives, giving us a little joy,” Bush said, wishing his staffers a Merry Christmas. “And we can never adequately say thanks for all you’ve done for us, for your country and for the Bush family.”