Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme

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Does the Bush Administration sound any better in rhyme? In this biting array of verse, it at least sounds funnier. Calvin Trillin employs everything from a Gilbert and Sullivan style, for describing George Bush’s rescue in the South Carolina primary by the Christian Right (“I am, when all is said and done, a Robertson Republican”), to a bilingual approach, when commenting on the President’s casual acknowledgment, after months of trying to persuade the nation otherwise, that there was never any evidence of Iraqi ...
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Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme

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Does the Bush Administration sound any better in rhyme? In this biting array of verse, it at least sounds funnier. Calvin Trillin employs everything from a Gilbert and Sullivan style, for describing George Bush’s rescue in the South Carolina primary by the Christian Right (“I am, when all is said and done, a Robertson Republican”), to a bilingual approach, when commenting on the President’s casual acknowledgment, after months of trying to persuade the nation otherwise, that there was never any evidence of Iraqi involvement in 9/11: “The Web may say, or maybe Lexis-Nexis / If chutzpa is a word they use in Texas.”

Trillin deals not only with George W. Bush but with the people around him—Supreme Commander Karl Rove and Condoleezza (Mushroom Cloud) Rice and Nanny Dick Cheney (“One mystery I’ve tried to disentangle: / Why Cheney’s head is always at an angle . . .”) The armchair warriors Trillin refers to as the Sissy Hawk Brigade are celebrated in such poems as “Richard Perle: Whose Fault Is He?” and “A Sissy Hawk Cheer” (“All-out war is still our druthers— / Fiercely fought, and fought by others.”).

Trillin may never be poet laureate—certainly not while George W. Bush is in office—but his wit and his political insight produce what has been called “doggerel for the ages.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400062881
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/1/2004
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 1,000,338
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 7.34 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Since 1990, CALVIN TRILLIN has been The Nation’s “deadline poet,” contributing every week a piece of verse on the news. In discussing his political sympathies, he has said, “I am partial to politicians with iambic names that rhyme with a lot of disparaging words.”


As a religion reporter, Calvin Trillin showed himself as something of a Doubting Thomas.

He was working for Time in the 1960s, and he didn't much like his assigned beat. So, he turned to one of the standard tricks of a good reporter: He hedged. "I finally got out of that by prefacing everything with 'alleged,' " he told Publishers Weekly. "I'd write about 'the alleged parting of the Red Sea,' even 'the alleged Crucifixion,' and eventually they let me go."

Fans of Trillin's writing -- his snapshots of ordinary U.S. life for The New Yorker, his political poetry in the Nation, his search for the ideal meal with his wife good-naturedly in tow -- will recognize his style in this early exercise in subversion. He is warm, gentle, and human, but there can be a dash of mischievousness for taste. Even the unwelcome sight of a brussels sprout at a buffet provoked his ire. Turning to his wife, he said, "The English have a lot to answer for."

Humorist Mark Russell took note in the pages of The New York Times in 1987: "Mark Twain, Robert Benchley and [S. J.] Perelman are dead, but Calvin Trillin is right there with the post-funeral cocktail to assure us that life goes on."

Born in Kansas City but transplanted to the West Village of New York City, Trillin has kept in touch with his midwestern roots for much of his writing. A collection of articles from The New Yorker on so-called ordinary murders from around the country became the book Killings, called by The Wall Street Journal "one of the most low-key, dispassionate, matter-of-fact books on murder ever produced."

In its review, the Los Angeles Times said: "He may be The New Yorker's finest stylist, and his writing is quite different from the careful accretion of detail that characterizes much of the magazine's writing. Trillin omits as much as he possibly can; he leaves spaces for resonating, like a guitar string stopped and kept mute to sound the overtone from the next string down."

In Travels with Alice he writes of looking for hamburgers on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Even in a classic New York story, Tepper Isn't Going Out, he writes not of theater or restaurants or even a rent-controlled apartment equidistant between Zabar's and Central Park. Instead he seeks out deeper pleasures: finding the perfect parking space, and holding onto it.

Humor is a Trillin trademark. He began writing a humor column for The Nation in the late 1970s called Uncivil Liberties that became two book collections. In 1980, The New York Times chuckled gratefully at his first novel, writing that "the antics around the nameless news magazine in...Floater are as funny as The Front Page and as absurd as playground pranks."

In 1990, he began treating Nation readers to a new column, a weekly spot of verse on the political hijinks of the day, pieces with names like "If You Knew What Sununu." This, too, became a book, The Deadline Poet: My Life as a Doggerelist. He even shares insights into the creative process: "A fool is fine. A pompous fool's sublime. / It also helps if they have names that rhyme."

Trillin's résumé has a sense of elasticity: journalist, novelist, humorist, satirist, poet. But there is a commonality to his work: It's approachable. And The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley points out that, for a journalist, this may be the toughest feat of all.

"Calvin Trillin is like an old shoe," he wrote in a 1998 review of Trillin's Family Man. "Whatever he may be writing about, he always makes you want to slip into it and get comfy. This may seem like a modest compliment, but it is a high one indeed. Few tricks are more difficult for the journalist to pull off than being consistently likable and engaging, making oneself and one's little world interesting and appealing to others."

Good To Know

Growing up in Kansas City, Calvin Marshall Trillin was known as Buddy.

The family name was originally Trilinsky.

He staged two one-man shows showcasing his humor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Calvin Marshall Trillin (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 5, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Kansas City, Missouri
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale University, 1957

Read an Excerpt


Obliviously on he sails,

With marks not quite as good as Quayle’s.

—November 29, 1999

The fact that those marks at Yale got him into Harvard Business School is yet another reminder of which class of Americans has always benefited from the original affirmative action program. When George W. Bush began to be spoken of as a possible presidential candidate, he had to counter a widespread impression that he was just a shallow rich boy who had failed at everything except riding along on family connections. Given what Bush’s college transcript revealed, it occurred to me that Dick Cheney, who flunked out of Yale twice, might have been put on the ticket because he was the only living American politician who had a less distinguished academic record at Yale than George W. Bush.

The theory prevalent more responsible observers was that Cheney, who had been in charge of finding the Republican vice-presidential nominee, selected himself as a sort of nanny to the relatively inexperienced Bush. I have always thought of Cheney as The Droner. His greatest talent has been to create a public persona that makes him appear to be, despite his congressional voting record and his views, too boring to be extreme.

In the past, I’d suggested campaign slogans to candidates of both parties—sometimes the same slogan, as in the tried-and-true “Never Been Indicted.” In that spirit, I offered Bush a campaign slogan that I’d once offered Quayle, a student of similar limitations who was in the DePauw chapter of Bush’s college fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon: “Definitely Not the Dumbest Guy in the Deke House.” The offer was not accepted.


He thinks that hostile’s hostage.

He cannot say subliminal.

The way Bush treats the language

Is bordering on criminal.

His daddy had the problem:

He used the nounless predicate.

Those cowboy boots can do that

To people from Connecticut.

—October 9, 2000


The President’s demanding proper dress—

A tie, a coat, a shine on shoes or boots.

I guess we’re meant to find this a relief:

We’ve now returned to government by suits.

—April 2, 2001


So what’s it called if during war you criticize the President for any reason?


And how long does this war go on (and this is where this theory’s really pretty clever)?


—June 10, 2002


One mystery I’ve tried to disentangle:

Why Cheney’s head is always at an angle.

He tries to come on straight, and yet I can’t

Help notice that his head is at a slant.

When Cheney’s questioned on the Sunday shows,

The Voice of Reason is his favorite pose.

He drones in monotones. He never smiles—

Explaining why some suspects don’t need trials,

Or why right now it simply stands to reason

That criticizing Bush amounts to treason,

Or which important precept it would spoil

To know who wrote our policy on oil,

Or why as CEO he wouldn’t know

What Halliburton’s books were meant to show.

And as he speaks I’ve kept a careful check

On when his head’s held crooked on his neck.

The code is broken, after years of trying:

He only cocks his head when he is lying.

—June 24, 2002


At first, we thought we should be glad

To have a nanny for the lad—

Young Bush, who might be overawed,

Who’d barely even been abroad,

Who seemed to us a lightweight laddie

Who’d need a sitter sent by daddy.

But Cheney’s shop became the place

Where fantasists would make their case:

Iraqis threaten. At the least,

We’d rearrange the Middle East

And rule the world forevermore

If we just smashed them in a war.

Dick bought this bunk, and sold it, too.

He lied back then, and he’s not through.

He’d fooled the rubes like you and me

Who never thought that he would be

A zealot once he got installed.

Stealth Nanny’s what he should be called.

—December 8, 2003

i’m an old cowhand, as sung by george w. bush

(With apologies to Johnny Mercer)

I’m an old cowhand from the hinterland,

Which an Eastern wuss wouldn’t understand.

Ain’t a rich folks’ tax cut I wouldn’t sign,

But I don’t know no one who drinks white wine.

How ’bout Kenneth Lay? Weren’t no friend of mine.

Yippee i oh ti-ay! Yippee i oh ti-ay!

I’m a cowpoke, folks. Don’t eat artichokes.

Burgers do me fine. Wash ’em down with Cokes.

In my battle flight suit I’ll stike a pose,

But I got compassion, down to my toes.

It’s for unborn babies and CEOs.

Yippee i oh ti-ay! Yippee i oh ti-ay!

I’m a cowboy, guys. This is no disguise.

I don’t flip or flop. I don’t agonize.

Ain’t no bad guy goin’ I won’t bombard.

Kerry’s soft on bad guys and I am hard—

Toughest hombre ever hid in the Guard.

Yippee i oh ti-ay! Yippee i oh ti-ay!

—April 5, 2004

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2007

    Not everyone is a genius

    Not everyone is a genius. Even Trillin with his keeness. He makes fun of those who try Trillin couldn't make it, Oh, my! And more nose snubbing horse rot. You too shall fall into the pot. Who make your living shaming Bush Your self is shamed with naked tush.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2004

    A Great Read for Someone of Any Political Persuasion

    These poems are both funny and enlightening.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2004

    What Insight!

    Mr.Trillin is a jewel - what talent! He provided a delightful afternoon's read. You will smile and sometimes laugh out loud at his insightful musings.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2004

    Witty and timeful

    A great read for all!!! Then again, when you paint yourself such an easy target as Bush, how can it be anything else but delightful?

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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