TALK ABOUT TEMPTATION.
"Temptation. The things that make you want to . . ." Barbara Walters leaned forward six inches ". . . be bad." She stopped just short of leaving the bubble of good light that surrounded her chair.
George held fast to the arms of his own chair, trying to stay calm. Trying to stay focused. How had he gotten here?
The answer was easy enough to trace but much harder to comprehend. Images of the 2006 congressional elections floated through his head. Those had been followed by the investigation, of course, and all of Iraq-gate and the impeachment, not to mention the embarrassing final incident on the White House lawn, much less the 2008 election. Now, somehow, Hillary was president -- his president -- and George Bush was taking the advice of a 26-year-old publicist who swore that kissing up to Barbara Walters on national television would do wonders for his image.
George didn't hate Barbara right now. It just kind of felt that way.
He tightened his fingers around the scroll of woodwork on the chair. Just hang in there, Georgie. A few more questions and it's over. And don't forget to smile.
"Well, Barbara, I think I'm more tempted about doing good in the world. There are still plenty of people out there who, you know, heh-heh, hate freedom."
The sound bite was like a comfortable old blazer he could still slip into. The laugh -- well, that was just habit.
Barbara nodded sagely. When he didn't go on, she added, "Yes, but what about for you -- personally? It hasn't exactly been easy, has it?"
George's knuckles whitened.
"There was the cancellation of your book tour; the incident with your neighbor's dog; the altercation -- excuse me, the alleged altercation -- last month with Alec Baldwin in Houston . . ."
Hold the chair, George. Just hold onto that chair.
Barbara continued patiently, and, to George's ears, condescendingly. "Doesn't it all sometimes make you want to . . ." She angled her face fifteen degrees away from the camera, to her right. Her better side ". . . do something you shouldn't?"
Somewhere, a synapse misfired. Before George knew what was happening, his hand flew across the space between them and caught Barbara's exposed cheek full on, flat-palmed, with a ringing smack that caused a sound tech across the room to throw off his headphones.
George stood. "I'm sorry. Oh, my goodness. I'm so sorry."
Barbara's own hand went to her red cheek. That was the last he saw of her before the throng descended. She left in a cloud of assistants and executive producers, without comment.
The headlines were, of course, immediate. "Entertainment Tonight" led with the story that evening, as did the PBS "NewsHour" and everyone in between. The major papers beat at it mercilessly all week, and Time printed a cover story with George's face hiding behind the title "Aggression: Can We Help It?"
There was no response from the Walters camp to his repeated apologies. Even the flowers he sent with a gift certificate tucked into the card, for a week's stay at Canyon Ranch, met with institutional silence.
Ms. Walters seemed to bounce back just fine, though. She resurfaced several days later as a surprise guest on David Letterman, where she wore a tiny Band-Aid on her cheek and read the night's Top Ten List. The number one thing to know when interviewing George Bush?
Barbara smiled knowingly. "Wear a cup."
But George did not prove so resilient. He withdrew; stayed home at the ranch; went off his diet. The only time he ventured out was for the court-ordered, and highly publicized, anger-management class, where he sat mutely on his folding chair in the Crawford Community Center's Laura Bush Library while eight other people plumbed the depths of their pent-up emotions.
During the fifth and final session, Gloria, their facilitator, turned to him.
"Mr. Bush, it's up to you whether or not to participate, but I will have to re-enroll you if you choose not to share before we're done here."
George folded his arms. He pushed out his lower lip. He squinted.
"OK, then." Gloria turned her attention elsewhere.
And George stewed. He had no intention of participating. Not now, not ever. He was a former President of the United States, for God's sake. The world, it seemed, had been turned upside down. It could all just go on without him.
And it would. Another scandal would steal headlines a few weeks later, and the slap would become a sub-Lewinsky historical footnote. If there was lasting damage from the incident, it was going to be more personal than anything. Barbara's cheek would heal, but it would probably always be true that the
former president's --
GEORGE'S -- NOSE WAS OUT OF JOINT.
Chris Tebbetts' latest book, co-written with Lisa Papademetriou, is the young adult novel M or F? He is also the author of the fantasy-adventure series The Viking.