It’s easy to forget that President Bush was the first YouTube President — that is, until you watch his White House Christmas videos. Produced annually between 2002 and 2007, and titled “BarneyCam” after Bush’s Scottish Terrier, the videos are summer camp-quality skits starring the president, his dog and some of his closest advisers, like Alberto Gonzalez and Margaret Spellings, who seem not to have realized that digital media is 4ever.
Today, some online commenters express schadenfreude at seeing the old Bush cast preserved in this digital snow globe of embarrassment, while others are nostalgic for a president who was, as Marc Maron recently put it, “the most consistently involuntarily funny president that ever existed.” But for me, it’s all about Barney.
Let me skip directly to the scene that says it all, from Barney Reloaded, 2003:
Barney, who is lovable but flawed, lazy and self-important, wakes up just in time for an appointment with Andy Card, the president’s chief of staff. Card tasks him with decorating the White House: “The president is counting on you. I don’t want you pushing that soccer ball around … until everything is done.” Barney leaves Card’s office and, instead of getting to work, tousles with a soccer ball on the White House lawn.
Soon, Bush in a cowboy hat squats by the First Pet for the recurring BarneyCam Danny Tanner pep talk. Never winking at the camera, laboriously in character as himself, Bush intones urgently to the dog: “Everybody’s lookin’ for you, you’re supposed to be working, and here you are playing.” Then Bush stands up and says in farcical LOUD TALK, “Alright Barney, I’VE GOT TO GO BACK TO WORK IN THE OVAL OFFICE RIGHT OVER HERE,” delivered as if he had never once been in the Oval Office. Finally, as if the parallels were not obvious enough, W. says to Barney, “I’ve got a job to do and so do you.”
Then, oddly for a guy with great comic timing, the joke is over and Bush is still talking, alone in his cowboy hat in the snow, Barney somewhere off camera: “I think it’s time for you to quit playing and getting exercise, and go in and do the job that the Chief of Staff told you to do. When somebody gives you a job, Barney, and you agree to do it, then you’re supposed to do the job.”
According to Peter Baker’s new biography, Bush wasn’t as lazy and illiterate as his public image, but nevertheless, he had to be aware that he was considered a perpetually vacationing clown, right? Is Bush in on the joke that Barney is a metaphor for him when he emphasizes that Barney is lazy and lovable? I doubt it.
If you think I’m exaggerating about the lack of self-awareness, take a quick BarneyCam highlights tour with me, Barney and a D.C.-area character actor named Karl Rove:
Happy Holidays from Barney and Spotty, 2002
Essentially a tour of the White House from four inches off the ground. Barney occasionally barks, hinting at his lovable aggression, but there’s no elaborate plotting, acting or voice over.
Where in the White House is Miss Beazley? 2004
This year, we open with a depressed Barney. He was turned down for a senior-level position in the president’s cabinet, and he’s now responsible for taking care of his new sibling, an identical Scotty named Miss Beazley. Highlights:
00:47-1:09 — Bush on one knee, with sincere regret, says to his dog, “I know you wanted a position in my cabinet.”
3:00-3:15 — Watch Scott McClellan be a total dick to a tiny dog.
3:48 — Karl Rove has a temper tantrum and is pelted with balls.
A Very Beazley Christmas, 2005
BarneyCam loses its way a bit in 2005. Barney’s “numbers are down,” with Miss Beazley, the new puppy, having stolen the nation’s heart. George Stephanopoulos actually delivers the lines: “It is all about Miss Beazley this Christmas.”
1:50 — God bless Secretary of the Treasury John Snow: Maybe he’s not a warlock who eats small dogs, but this video does not prove it.
2:30 — The secretaries of agriculture and of housing and urban development are watching Miss Beazley on television and basically discussing how hot she is. They sound like two guys at Hooters talking about a waitress, like if Barney hadn’t walked in, someone would have mentioned her eight tits.
Barney’s Holiday Extravaganza, 2006
This time the First Dog is given the job of putting together a Christmas show. (Note that BarneyCam, entering its modernist phase, is now about BarneyCam.)
1:09 — Another great Barney-Bush heart-to-heart: “I can see from the look on your face, Barney, that you hadn’t even thought about the plot.”
2:00 — Barney shows Hank Paulson his plans for BarneyCam, and Paulson rejects them, saying, “There’s no easy way to say this, but we’re out of money.”
2:24 — Audition sequence: Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings emerges from Barney’s auditions crestfallen, saying, “I did my best, but Barney said I can’t dance.” In the most 2006 moment of 2006, she pulls out her flip phone, dials 555-555-5555, and Emmett Smith, who had just won Dancing with the Stars, picks up. This particular joke, which had about a three-day shelf life, shows how misunderstood the relationship between YouTube and posterity is.
2:55 — As Spellings nurses her wounds, Karl Rove minces into the room, boasting, “I’m in, I’m in, I’m in!” You get the feeling he lobbied for the part and loved doing it. Strictly on the level of the performance, he’s pretty good.
BarneyCam IV: Holiday in the National Parks, 2007
This is the one year where they tried to instrumentalize BarneyCam for a message, albeit the most anodyne one possible.
Cut to: Barney’s fantasy of becoming a park ranger, which contains two cameos: British Prime Minister Tony Blair and country music star Alan Jackson, a pair as mathematically random as possible.
A Red, White and Blue Christmas, 2008
There is something sweet and believable about the Bush family sitting around the fire with Barney, all the more so for the bad acting and stilted dialogue.
1:20 — Barney’s fantasies of winning the Olympics and the Ryder Cup look like the third video ever made, like a Clarisworks joke made by a friend for a friend’s wedding on a computer at a public library.
Bush’s last pep talk to Barney also includes my favorite line: “You better wake up, fella. There’s a lot of work to be done around here. We’re sprintin’ to the finish, not nappin’ to the finish.”
By comparison, Obama’s taken the opposite tack. Instead of the president and his cabinet putting on amateur theater, the Obama White House released a hypoallergenic video of a hypoallergenic pet: “Bo Inspects the White House Holiday Christmas Decorations.” Don’t even watch it. It’s just Bo walking around, looking at shiny orbs.
Maybe Obama should loosen up a bit. I’m not asking for his cabinet to humiliate itself, for Macklemore and David Cameron to make a joint cameo in a dog’s dream, but, like, could John Kerry dress up as an elf? Could Obama put himself on the line a little? And most importantly: I think Karl Rove is on the consulting circuit; can we get that guy back for a quick cameo?
Julia Langbein has written about art, food and food and art at Gourmet Magazine, Gourmet.com, Grub Street, Gilt Taste, Artforum.com and elsewhere. She doesn't troll the internet like she used to because she's in a Ph.D. program in art history, where she specializes in 19th-century French graphic satire and painting, but she sometimes loses a morning to trashy British news, Longform.org or Mousse Magazine.
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