White House sources are saying that much to the annoyance of those around him, President Bush has been seen loudly chuckling to himself for the past two weeks after finally getting a pun that originated three years ago around the time of the invasion of Iraq.
Administration insiders variously attribute the phrase "Between Iraq and a hard place" to either Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, then National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice or former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The story goes that during a meeting with the president in the Oval Office in the spring of 2003, someone mentioned that if things did not go smoothly in Iraq, the United States would end up "Between Iraq and a hard place." Supposedly, everyone in the room irrupted in laughter, except for Bush, who was confused and did not get the joke.
Those who were in attendance claim that after the laughter died down, the president - looking slightly hurt and embarrassed - asked what was so funny. The play on words was explained to him several times but when he still did not get the pun, the briefing moved on, with Bush seeming to mull over the phrase in his head for the remainder of the meeting. Some versions of the story even have the president writing the clever wordplay down on paper so that the First Lady could help him solve it later.
Policy experts say that one reason the post-Iraq invasion plan turned out to be so disastrous may be that the president was so distracted by his inability to understand the pun, that he thought of little else for the next few months.
Now, years later and to the detriment of his staff, Bush has finally figured out the phrase's double meaning, according to those who work closely with the president. Eyewitness accounts have it that the president has been saying "Between Iraq and a hard place" over and over to himself for several weeks, while giggling like a "stoned fratboy".
"The president's recent obnoxious behaviour has been extremely distracting and trying, not only for himself but for those employees who need to concentrate," said a presidential aid, under condition of anonymity. "I would reveal my name but then I'm sure President Bush would insist upon a stern lecture about the dangers of leaking info, followed by a 'Hey, son, have you heard this joke about Iraq? It looks like America is between Iraq and a hard place.' Then he'll just burst out laughing and slap me on the back over and over. I really hate that."
Off the record, Congressional Republicans are questioning the wisdom of letting the president spend years obsessing over a joke.
Some are even beginning to openly wonder whether Bush's lackluster second term performance might have turned out differently had Bush spent as much time on domestic issues and terrorism as he did on the "Iraq joke", as it is now being referred to in Washington DC political circles - a sentiment shared by many conservatives.
"I just wish [President Bush] would have come to me for help," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN). "I would have explained the Iraq joke to him no problem."
The pun has been a needless distraction on the presidency during a time of war, added First who termed to incident "extremely regrettable" and vowed to introduce legislation barring witty humour from being spoken in the Oval Office or around the president, unless it is easily understood like a "knock-knock joke".
"Imagine where the country would be right now if the president hadn't been so pre-occupied with figuring out this pun, which I must admit is pretty stupid to begin with," said Michael Willis, of the Washington DC-based non-partisan think tank, America NOW for Americans. "While I can't say for certain that disasters like Katrina or the current state of affairs in Iraq might have been averted, at least you might have seen a more pro-active presidency."
Willis added that presidential historians will be arguing for years over the direct and indirect repercussions of the president's obsession with figuring out the quick-witted phrase. "Academics are saying that this even went way beyond the Lewinsky scandal in terms of shutting down a presidency."