Jim Morris was terrified.
In 1988, George Bush was elected President, succeeding Morris’ endless supplier of comic material, Ronald Reagan. Would Morris become a lame-duck comedian-impersonator and go the way of Kennedy mimic Vaughn Meader and Nixon’s comic embodiment, David Frye?
Not to worry.
The quintessential impersonator of Reagan as dithering Dad quickly metamorphosed into a whining, WASP-ish Bush. And before you could say “read my lips,” Morris was doing a mock inauguration of George Bush.
“I was doing Bush before I was doing Reagan, in the spring of ’80,” Morris, 33, said. “After that, Bush became the Invisible Man, and I put him on the back burner.”
But Bush had changed a bit in the intervening years, said Morris, who had to rework his impersonation into a sort of amalgam of Liberace, Jack Nicholson and Mister Rogers.
“Bush sort of dropped his consonants in a weird attempt to be an everyday, middle-American guy. He’d say things like, ‘We’re goin’ fishin’.’ He also learned to bring his high-pitched, whiny voice down to a very controlled delivery. He also restricted the use of his hands, at least in the contrived presentations like the stump speech. But when he gets excited, his voice goes high and whiny again, and his tongue wags and his arms flail, and that’s what I pick up on.”
Morris said that he sees dissimilarities in the way both Presidents like to be perceived, which affects how Morris portrays them.
“Bush really likes to be perceived as a hands-on person who is on top of everything, whereas Reagan really played up the point that he wasn’t. In fact, that was his way out of the Iran-Contra mess. He pleaded ‘nolo brain.’ ”
Morris is not under any illusions that the impersonator is more than a shadow of the person he imitates.
Morris has performed before Bush three times, most recently at the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
But there is a Bush-whacking problem for Morris on these occasions.
“Would I pull any punches because he’s a likable guy, especially in person? But I realized I wouldn’t respect myself if I didn’t give him the full guns. So that’s what I did, and as it turned out, he has a very good sense of humor about himself.”
So far, Bush has not taken Morris up on his offer “to come in three times a week to get on the phone to other world leaders to free him up.”