Dennis Rodman, the ex-NBA star, made news in February with his diplomatic mission to North Korea, and his subsequent assessment of its young leader, Kim Jong-un. Rodman reported that “I love the guy. He’s awesome. He’s so honest.”
Does that remind you of anyone?
Maybe George W. Bush, for example, who met Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2001 and announced: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
What’s really curious, though, is that the similarities between Bush and Rodman go far beyond their penchant for sizing up foreign leaders based on limited evidence. From the banal to the profound, here are nine more similarities between two men who, on the surface, have almost nothing in common.
9. Role players
Bush and Rodman both possess a relatively limited skill set. But both men have made up for that lack by specializing. Despite averaging a paltry seven points per game, Rodman earned a place in the pro-basketball Hall of Fame by becoming a rebounding machine and defensive force of nature. For all his political failings, Bush managed to save face through the economic conservatism that rendered him “a CEO’s wet dream,” as the pundit Molly Ivins once wrote. “George W. Bush is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America.”
8. Under an alpha-male demeanor, the soul of an artist
Whether crashing his way toward a rebound or chilling with dictators, Rodman is a performance artist of the highest order, covering his most important canvas — his body — with dyes, piercings and tattoos. Bush has taken advantage of retirement to also find his inner artist. Dogs and landscapes are favorite subjects. And there’s a distinctly Rodman-esque twist here: He’s apparently done a self-portrait in the shower. “He has such a passion for painting,” says his teacher. “He’s going to go down in the history books as a great artist.”
7. Odd nicknames
Rodman is known as “The Worm.” Ivins may have given Bush the nickname “Shrub,” but he dubbed himself “The Decider” and “43.” He signs his artwork with the latter.
6. Frosty relationship with the media
Rodman once kicked a cameraman in the groin after tripping over him while going for a rebound. He was suspended for 11 games. In 2000, Bush called a reporter for the New York Times a “major league asshole” as he and Dick Cheney waved to a crowd at a campaign event.
5. Dallas connections
Rodman’s mother moved the family to Texas when he was a child, after Rodman’s father abandoned the family. He spent the remainder of his childhood in Dallas and worked briefly as a janitor at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport after graduating from high school. Bush chose Dallas as the site of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, which opens to the public on May 1 — mark your calendar. He also maintains an office in one of the city’s high-rise office buildings.
4. Multi-dimensional personal lives
Bush was never one to let work get in the way of developing a full, rounded personal life. He reportedly loves few things more than clearing brush on his ranch in Texas, taking his mountain bike for exhausting rides, and fishing. In fact, he once told a newspaper that, as president, “the best moment of all was when I caught a 7.5 pound perch in my lake.”
For his part, Rodman challenges stereotypes about homophobia engrained in the sports world by standing up for LGBT rights in his personal life. He has written that “to hang out in a gay bar or put on a sequined halter top makes me feel like a total person and not just a one-dimensional man…I want to challenge people’s image of what an athlete is supposed to be. I like bringing out the feminine side of Dennis Rodman.”
3. Father issues
The elder Rodman, who admits to fathering 29 children by 16 mothers, moved to the Philippines after abandoning Dennis, his sisters, and his mother. Before they had a brief reunion in 2012, the younger Rodman hadn’t seen him in more than four decades. “My father isn’t part of my life,” he wrote in his book Bad as I Wanna Be. “I just look at it like this: Some man brought me into this world. That doesn’t mean I have a father; I don’t.” It’s hard to accept Rodman’s breezy indifference, though, given the experience of other people in his shoes — notably Barack Obama, who devoted a whole book to “dreams from” the father that he hardly knew.
By contrast, George W. Bush’s entire life seems like an extended act of sublimated rebellion against the overweening presence of his father — the crushing expectations that come from being the son of a man who reached extraordinary levels of success in so many fields, from his war service to his business, diplomatic and political careers. There was a lot left unsaid, in other words, when the elder Bush confronted George W., then 26, about his driving drunk one night, and the future “43” threw down the gauntlet: “You wanna go mano-a-mano right here?”
2. Late bloomers
Rodman was relatively short in high school and a non-factor on his school’s basketball team, which he quit because of his limited playing time. But he grew more than a foot in his late teens, and that spurt opened up the possibility of a college (and then a pro) basketball career. Bush had a conversion experience at the age of 40, after which he decided to give up drinking. On the campaign trail, he famously named Jesus as his favorite philosopher, because “he changed my heart.”
1. World-historical ambitions
In 2005, a senior Palestinian politician claimed that Bush told a Palestinian delegation he was “driven with a mission from God” to bring freedom to Afghanistan and Iraq, and then to bring peace to the Middle East. The White House denied the claim. Even if we never know with perfect clarity all the reasons we went to war in Iraq, and the precise importance of each causal factor — Bush’s father/son psychodrama, oil interests, Dick Cheney’s unchained Dr. Evil impulses — it’s certain that Bush’s favorite philosopher is somewhere in the mix.
Rodman, in the meantime, is poised to pick up where Bush left off as a change-maker of epic proportions. Hoping to meet with the newly elected pope last week, he traveled to Rome and expressed a desire to “spread a message of peace and love throughout the world” and “to be anywhere in the world that I’m needed.” Rodman also marveled at the fact that “I’m actually doing all these amazing historical things now. And people just can’t believe it’s actually Dennis Rodman, of all people — not Madonna, Oprah, or anybody like that.”
Yes, Dennis, it’s pretty unbelievable. You and The Decider: so different on the surface, yet brothers under the skin.
Bush has remained mostly out of the spotlight in retirement, mercifully. And God is playing it close to the vest as well, declining to weigh in, publicly at least, on whether he or she regrets the collaboration with Shrub a decade ago. If we mere mortals are to find any sense or meaning in The Worm’s and The Decider’s world-transforming quests, we’ll have to find them on our own. Rodman may have many faults, and he may be a fool. His act is, of course, a bunch of nonsense — but not so much worse, and far less harmless, than what passed for wisdom in Washington, D.C., a decade ago. On the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, it’s worth reflecting on that fact, and on what a bunch of idiots our leaders still take us for.
An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect date for Rodman’s travel to North Korea. In These Times regrets the error.
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