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How U.S. Presidents Become Lords of the Flies

Tevi Troy

During a health-care speech in the East Room of the White House yesterday, President Obama took a swat at a pesky, speech-interrupting fly, garnering a laugh from his audience in the process. He then noted that the crowd had “seen me grab one of those before.” Indeed, Tuesday was hardly the first time that a fly has interrupted the president, and it likely won’t be the last.

Last summer, President Obama showily killed a fly during an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood. He even took the time, while on camera, to wait for the fly to land before sending it to its maker.

PETA objected to this act of presidential fly-killing, but the bigger story is about the prevalence of flies in the presidential home. When I served in the White House, the West Wing would become infested every summer with enormous flies that were seemingly the size of human eyeballs. It always struck me as odd that the center of power in the free world had such a persistent problem with flies.

The fact that President Obama is facing flies on camera may indicate that the problem is getting worse. Under President Bush, it was not unheard of for policy briefings to be disturbed by the buzzing pests. In one economic briefing, for example, President Bush called a White House steward to shoo away a fly that was drawing more attention than the briefing itself. Before the steward could act, however, Karl Rove stepped up and nailed the pesky offender right near a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, eliciting kudos from those who had assembled — including the president himself.

White House chief of staff Josh Bolten even had flyswatters created with the White House logo on them. He distributed them to his staff to cope with the problem, but it was a losing battle.

To the extent that President Obama is getting quite good at fly swatting, then, it is because the White House is continuing to give him lots of opportunities for practice.

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