Politics & Policy


The Secret is out.

Kathrynjeanlopez: Did U Get Mrs. Frum’s IM book yet?

Danielle Crittenden’s The President’s Secret IMs is out, and Crittenden is back online ready to dish about what the computer files expose. She took time away from the president’s computer screen to answer a few questions from National Review Online editor.

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Your first book was What Our Mother Didn’t Tell Us. Is The President’s Secret IMs your way of warning your children about how truly dangerous new technology can be if not used carefully?

HOtAUTHOR: LOL. Um, it’s not something I like to remember, but I was once described by the New York Post as the “blabbermouth wife” for sending an e-mail around about my husband’s achievements as a speechwriter for the president. So, alas, yes, I’m all too familiar with the danger of the technology if not used carefully. In fact, the idea for writing imagined dialogues between the president and his “buddy list” grew out of an act of such carelessness by my teenage daughter, Miranda. One day she left on my computer screen an IM conversation with one of her friends. There was nothing incriminating in it (fortunately for her). But it was my first real exposure to the whole IM world, and I was both intrigued by and struck by its banality. The dialogue amounted to what must have been a 15-minute or so conversation about the absolute lack of anything going on at that moment:


“sos.* wassup witu?”

“jc” **



*’same old story’ — not a cry for help at sea

**’just chilling’ — no Christian allusions

And so on. I had a thought: What if world leaders communicated this way? It was just before a G8 summit at Glen Eagle, Scotland. Wouldn’t it be funny if George W. Bush and Tony Blair communicated with each other via IM like two teenage boys anticipating a prom? I bashed out an imagined IM conversation — which Miranda condescended to edit (and correct my “lame” IM-speak). I gave Bush the screen name of “Kickass43” and posted it on the Huffington Post. It received a great reaction from the readers. I did another and gradually it grew as a series. The wonderful British satirical magazine, Private Eye, runs fictitious “diaries” by famous politicians. Bush’s IMs are written in that same spirit. The teen/IM vernacular perfectly fits Bush’s saucy adolescent/frat-boy personality — the kid who’s is forever trying to catch up on his homework and skate through exams while exchanging towel-snapping wit with his “buddies.”

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Has the president IMed you about the book yet? At least secretly?

HOtAUTHOR: Oddly, no. However I’m persuaded there are people in the White House who read it. How else to explain that speech GWB gave at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (the year when Stephen Colbert was the evening’s entertainment)? If you remember, the president spoke as “the president” and then a comedian sidekick played the “inner-Bush,” saying what the president really thought. The inner Bush was a spitting image for Kickass43, down to the line he cracked, “Laura. She’s hot. Muy caliente.” Although the unscripted Bush, as we’ve discovered, is also very “Kickass43”: When he and Tony Blair were caught with the mike-on at that summit in Germany, he actually said, “Yo, Tony” and the two then proceeded to swap expletives. I got letters from readers saying, “Hey, I always thought your stuff was fiction.”

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: In reality: Do you have any idea how computer proficient the president is these days?

HOtAUTHOR: It’s known that Bush uses an IPod and works on a Mac. So the IMs are formatted in iChat.

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Who seems to like The President’s Secret IMs more? Left or Right?

HOtAUTHOR: Satire succeeds if both sides of the political spectrum can laugh at it. I like to think of this book as one a liberal son-in-law can give to his right-wing father-in-law (ret-mil), and both will get a kick out of it. As you know, most of the satire of Bush to date has been produced by the Left, and, quite frankly, it *sux.* It’s premise always is Bush-is-an-idiot-liar-war-monger. That might be funny if you’re a nut root who thinks Molly Ivins was the most hilarious columnist ever. But it fails as satire because it’s not based on an essentially true and even sympathetic — or empathetic — reading of Bush’s personality. My IMs stemmed from real current events, and how I imagined Bush would react to them — or secretly react to them — if we could really see inside his head. The Bush who emerges in the IMs is principled, canny, witty, somewhat profane, and always trying to follow his gut (not least when it’s rumbling, to the WH mess for “chx tortillas”) — but he is constantly being overruled or thwarted by his inner circle of aides. Condi (“SecStateUSA,” whom Bush calls the “Sexiest of State”) always manages to smooth-talk him down from taking a strong position against the “Islamonuts”:

SecStateUSA: For better or worse we are going to have to engage with the newly elected Hamas government –

Kickass43: ?!

Kickass43: c-grl u jus kickd hamas ass

Kickass43: & now u want ME 2 *engage* w em?

SecStateUSA: I don’t mean engage right now. I mean lay the groundwork for future engagement, which I’m afraid is going to be inevitable. Nothing too strong…

Ditto for Karen Hughes (“IheartUSA”), who rolls him in a schoolmarmish font. When Bush suggests it’s perhaps time to “stop lissenin 2 all the dems whinin of lies” and “redeclare war” on Iraq and “do the job rite,” Hughes replies, “Yes, sir. I know you are at your very best when you feel strongly. Our allies might not yet be ready for that level of strength.”

These dialogues are obviously stretched for the purposes of satire but at core they ring true, and that’s what (I hope) makes them funny. And not just ring true for Bush — but for all the characters on his “Buddy List.” Sometimes, before I “channeled” a character, I’d go immerse myself in transcripts of that person speaking: Condi, for example, uses a lot of State Department bureaucratic-speak — “being hopeful about the democratic process” etc. Her character is perfectly correct in all her online dealings with the president, despite his attempts to engage her in ghetto talk. Tony Snow speaks like a Fox News personality (“Welcome to the White House Briefing with Tony Snow. I’m Tony Snow.”) At one point, he proposes a sweeps-week style campaign to raise the president’s polls on immigration:

Snoblowr: we need to get you down to the border

Snoblowr: think “COPS”

Snoblowr: I see: cameras following the President on a night raid

Snoblowr: I see: the President shouting “Stop! Freeze you [bleeping] coyote!”

Snoblowr: I see: the merciless thugs thrown to the ground

Snoblowr: I see: the President holding them down while border cops frisk the suspects

Snoblowr: cut to the reveal: an 18-wheeler stuffed to the gills with starving & thirsty Mexicans…

Snoblowr: frightened moms

Snoblowr: crying dirty babies

Snoblowr: dads just trying to do the right thing

Snoblowr: nice decent people who just want to work hard in our country

Snoblowr: cut to: the President helping them out of the truck…

SnoBlowr: passing out bottles of water, formula…

The most popular chats, among liberals and conservatives equally, were the dialogues with Clinton. No matter what one thought of him as president, he continues to be certainly one of the most entertaining political figures — ever. His personality, like Bush’s, lends itself naturally to the medium of IM. Although of course, because Clinton was regarded by some as our first “black” president, he uses more ghetto slang than Kickass43.

The hardest voice to get right was Tony Blair’s (“Sxybritguy10”). There’s that whole British class/accent thing going on. An English friend said, “Think of him as a British pharmacist.” Smart, educated, but with a middle-class accent infused with middle-class pretensions. (And then try do it in IM speak: “roit” instead of “rite.”) Some were just outright fun to channel: The Pope (“Ben16” — his Holiness doesn’t log on but “materializes”); an Arab sheik; Sylvio Berlusconi (“Nap0leon3,” who insists that Dick Cheney’s shooting incident was no accident, and surely the veep “popped” that Whittington dude for romantic reasons. He then offers to do the job right.) Sometimes readers asked how I could “hear” all these voices in my head — I have to say my husband wondered the same thing, but with alarm.

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Obviously a lot of this is all in good fun, but did you have any hesitation doing these secret IMs? The president can come off as a bit of a goofball.

HOTAUTHOR: Not a goofball! Maybe at times a goof off…

No I didn’t have much hesitation in writing them, because they were never mean-spirited. Essentially I thought we could all use a good laugh about politics around now. I was very aware that I was posting the IMs on a liberal website, even if they ended up being forwarded or linked to by other websites. I certainly did not want to be lumped among the Bush bashers, nor be seen as disloyal to my own team. That ended up being helpful in terms of creative discipline: no cheap or easy laughs. As Bush the Elder might say, “Got to keep it up here; not down there.” Maybe the joke on me is that conservatives and Republicans alike have grown just as sick as the Left of ol Kickass43 — and for them (as for some of my liberal readers) my humor may seem too gentle!

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Do you have “Bush fatigue”? Was this IMing any way therapeutic for you?

HOtAUTHOR: Yes (see above!) to both. Although it’s not therapeutic in the way you might think: I really love the president’s IM character; the more I see of the “real” Bush these days, the more I think, damn, why can’t you be like Kickass43?! So writing in the voice of Bush’s IM character keeps me from giving up on the president entirely. I delude myself that Kickass43 is his true voice.

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Is there a secret message you’re trying to get through Kickass 43 and his IM conversations?

HOtAUTHOR: Of course. If you read them backwards, you will be apprised of my manifesto for world domination. Welcome, comrade.

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Do you have any idea if anyone in the White House uses IM? The president is not instant messaging the pope obviously, but shouldn’t everyone be afraid to use IM in this litigious environment?

HOtAUTHOR: It’s hard to know who, if anyone, in government, would use IM after the Mark Foley affair. One of the running plots of the series (and the book) is Kickass43’s secret friendship with Bill Clinton (“Ladeezman42”). Actually it’s not so much of a friendship as it is a relationship of mutual convenience. It occurred to me that the party most interested in seeing Hillary lose the White House is not the GOP but Clinton himself. Life is good right now for that dude. He’s making $peeches; his private life goes largely unscrutinized. Nothing could be worse for him than landing in the East Wing. I mean, really, what’s he going to do if that happens? (For sure they’re not going to entrust him with running the WH intern program…) As Bill tells Kickass43, “I aint no 1st gent if u kno wat im sayin.” So Bill agrees to give GWB political advice in order to undermine Hillary’s campaign. Ofcourse GWB keeps screwing up, causing Bill to wring his eHands in frustration (“u guys r fightin like a buncha hall monitors…how u guys won 04 beats the crap outta me”). This relationship — along with all Bush’s fictional IM chats — comes to an end with the Foley affair. There’s a last exchange between Kickass43 and Ladeezman42 in which the two desperately try to find out if the IMs have been saved somewhere in the White House database system, before they both permanently go “offline.” Thus the book opens with an imagined Yahoo news story about the “leak” of the president’s private IM chats, followed with a transcript of a press conference in which Tony Snow (“Snoblowr”) tries to downplay the “inestimable political damage” the leak causes:

I would say there’s no story here. It’s old news. The president, like anyone else, lets off steam and tells jokes in his personal communications. If there’s any news, it’s that the president’s a lot smarter and funnier than you guys give him credit for. O.K., let’s go to your questions. Why don’t I bite the bullet and start with David Gregory. He looks like he’s ready to jump out of his chair.

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Is there really a ring-kissing emoticon?

Crittenden: You mean when Kickass43 greets the pontiff online? :-*-O-

Uh no. I made that one up.

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Bill and Hillary have been spending a lot of time together lately. What do you imagine their IM conversations look like these days?

HOtAUTHOR: Riiiggghhht. I’d guess something like this:

Hillary08: Where are u?!?! >:-{

Ladeezman42: Auto-reply: The Clinton Global Initiative is designed to inspire action. Find out how you can contribute by going to www.clintonglobalinitiative.org.

Hillary08: I KNO you’re there!! Get rid of your away msg!!

Ladeezman42:Auto-reply: The Clinton Global Initiative is designed to inspire action.Find out how you can contribute by going towww.clintonglobalinitiative.org.

Etcetera etcetera. SOS.

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Speaking of Mrs. C: Should Hillary Clintons cleavage be a topic of political commentary?

HOtAUTHOR: If it’s worthy of it. I mean, Jessica Alba hasn’t entered politics yet, so there isn’t a lot of important cleavage for pundits to discuss. Condi’s might be O.K. except she tends to be more of a leg-flasher. That leaves, who, Nancy Pelosi? Ew.

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: Are you pro-YouTube debates or anti?

HOtAUTHOR: The more we see of these guys (and gals) the better — although of course I’m not referring back to the cleavage issue.

STANDiNGATHWARTONLINE: That’s your next project: The secret YouTubes. What do you think?


<em>The President’s Secret IMs</em>, by Danielle Crittenden



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