WASHINGTON, DC—Superstar actor Tom Hanks will fill President Bush’s spot at the White House through Friday while the chief executive takes the week off.
“We’re thrilled to have Tom sitting at the president’s desk this week,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Tuesday. “It’s truly an honor that this beloved star and two-time Oscar winner took time from his busy schedule to guest-lead the nation. It’s been a lot of fun so far, and we have even more great meetings lined up for the next couple days, so make sure to check the news.”
It’s the first guest-president gig for Hanks, who took the reins Monday, but McClellan said the actor’s political inexperience is not a liability. Citing Hanks’ “amiable yet commanding presence” and “seamless interfacing with diverse policymakers and diplomats,” McClellan characterized the Hollywood insider as a “born leader.”
“Some guest presidents breeze into a cabinet meeting or state dinner thinking they can get by on star power—and generally, they can,” McClellan said. “But Tom’s unique, low-key, everyman persona sets him apart from the others. It endears him to everyone he meets, from the high-level diplomat to the Minority Whip.”
So far this week, Hanks has welcomed Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom, Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives director Jim Towey, and the United States Marine Band. White House officials said Hanks “more than held his own” with political heavy-hitters, and even injected a dose of good-natured humor into the diplomatic proceedings.
“I’m more cut out for introducing an education-policy initiative at an inner-city kindergarten, or pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving, than I am for brokering a viable solution for Mideast peace,” Hanks told Shalom at a Rose Garden press conference as reporters laughed. “But seriously, Shalom, there’s nothing the world wants more than to see an end to all this horrible and senseless bloodshed. Now, earlier you were telling me a great story about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. What’s this Gaza withdrawal plan all about?”
As part of his job as guest president, Hanks signed several pieces of legislation into law: a House appropriations bill funding foreign operations, export financing, and related programs; a joint resolution honoring deceased U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN); and a bill banning the “morning after pill.” He also refused to commute the death sentence of a prisoner convicted of capital murder.
Hanks attended a DC-area campaign fundraiser Tuesday evening on behalf of Bush.
“Guess you didn’t expect to see me here today, did you?” Hanks said, to delighted whoops and cheers from the 5,000 supporters in attendance. “Well, I thought I’d show off this new suit I bought to match the Oval Office. Yeah, right, I know what you’re thinking: ‘Don’t quit your day job, huh, Tom.’”
Since Bush took office, other guest presidents have included Whoopi Goldberg, Seinfeld star Jason Alexander, opinionated basketball great Charles Barkley, and, for one infamous week in March 2003, conservative TV commentator Bill O’Reilly, who provoked controversy by criticizing actor and frequent White House drop-in guest George Clooney and by authorizing the invasion of Iraq.
“The guest president has to walk a narrow line,” media columnist and critic Michael Medved said. “The fill-in has to know when to make his mark and inject the proceedings with his own style of governing, and when to ease back and give the American people what they’re familiar with. Also, guest leaders have to be careful not to step on the regular president’s toes if they want to be invited back.”
Hanks’ upcoming guests include the Duke and Duchess of Kent and Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candy Lightner, in addition to Costa Rican president Abel Pacheco, who will discuss trade tariffs and show off his collection of odd-shaped pineapples.
Under Bush, the guest-president tradition has returned to the White House after a 25-year absence. In the ‘70s, Jimmy Carter hand-picked comedian and TV star Bob Newhart as his permanent guest president, but abruptly fired him after learning that Newhart was moonlighting as guest prime minister for Canada’s Pierre Trudeau. After the incident, the White House began to send the press crew on the road with a traveling president, pre-taping important Cabinet announcements or simply re-broadcasting old State of the Union addresses.
McClellan said the Bush Administration chose to reinstate the guest-president tradition in order to “shake things up a bit.” He noted that the government actually sees a slight spike in public-approval ratings during Bush’s weeks off.
From his Malibu vacation compound, a tennis-whites-clad Bush praised his temporary replacement as a “consummate professional.”
“Tom’s a great guy, and I’d be honored if he’d consider doing another turn as guest president,” Bush said. “Besides, I can rest easy knowing Dick Cheney’s sitting there beside him to keep things rolling, should there be a lull.”