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Great Presidential Wit: (...I Wish I Was in the Book) (Lisa Drew Books)by Bob Dole
Introduction: Backbones and Funny Bones
Any man who has the job I have and didn't have a sense of humor wouldn't still be here.
In listing qualifications for the presidency, the Constitution is as spare as it is specific. One must be at least thirty-five years of age, native born, and "a Resident within the United States" for at least fourteen years. That's it. Nothing about political judgment, educational background, oratorical skills, vision, or administrative talents. The Founders left it to posterity — and the professors — to fill in these and other blanks. A year ago C-SPAN invited historians to rank America's presidents, the latest in a never-ending series of academic polls gauging the men who have filled the nation's highest office. Not surprisingly, this rarefied electorate chose to emphasize such weighty criteria as economic management, political skills, international affairs, and the pursuit of social justice.
But there is another, less obvious element of presidential leadership. Second only to backbone, every president requires a funny bone. Certainly our most successful chief executives have exhibited both. Among these was Franklin D. Roosevelt. "The overwhelming majority of Americans are possessed of two great qualities," said FDR, "a sense of humor and a sense of proportion." In truth, they are one and the same. The greatest of leaders are not only able to laugh, they can laugh at themselves.
Most of the time, anyway. These days you can't swing a dead cat without hitting some historical pundit who has every president neatly pigeonholed. But imagine if the roles were reversed. For years politicians have entertained Walter Mitty-ish fantasies about turning the table on our scholarly judges. (What would Chester Arthur think of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.?)
In the pages that follow I offer up my own, admittedly unscientific, attempt to assess, or reassess, America's presidents as humorists. They fall into eight categories:
At the top of the heap (and it should be remembered that this ranking still represents a "historical snapshot" and is a movable list that could continually change based upon the humor or lack thereof of the next occupant of the Oval Office) I place Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and the two Roosevelts. By most accounts they are also among the most effective of chief executives. Coincidence? I don't think so. For occupants of the world's most stressful job, laughter is an emotional safety valve. "I laugh because I must not cry," said Lincoln during the darkest days of his war-ravaged presidency, in words that could have been echoed by FDR during World War II. The fact that they could laugh under such circumstances confirmed their essential humanity amidst the most inhuman pressures. And given the acknowledged recuperative benefits of humor, Ronald Reagan's wit may have done more than charm a nation — it may also have sped his recovery from a would-be assassin's bullet.
Nor is the presence of Franklin Pierce, Benjamin Harrison, and Millard Fillmore in the ranks of White House failures entirely unrelated to their joyless outlook. Don't get me wrong. Fillmore's been good for many a chuckle over the years. It's just that most of the laughter has come at his expense. In this he is hardly alone. Writing in the 1930s, Irwin "Ike" Hoover, who as chief usher had known every chief executive from the second Harrison through the second Roosevelt, portrayed the White House as a pretty grim place.
"How few presidents laugh heartily," wrote Hoover. "Taft was the exception. Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover — never more than a smile. Roosevelt forced himself into a laugh occasionally and Harding would break the rule once in a while. The extremes were Taft and Hoover. The latter never laughed aloud."
To be fair to President Hoover, the Great Depression was no laugh riot. Neither was the earlier depression with which Grover Cleveland had to contend, the Spanish-American War, which confronted McKinley, or the First World War, which overtook Woodrow Wilson. Yet in spite of — or perhaps because of — such demands, each of these presidents sought refuge in laughter. In fact, as readers are about to discover, Ike Hoover's claims don't always bear up under scrutiny. Woodrow Wilson could be downright risqué, Herbert Hoover turns out to be anything but the dour recluse depicted in most history books, and "Silent" Calvin Coolidge could just as easily have been "Sarcastic" Calvin Coolidge.
In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined the presidency as "the greased pig in the field game of American politics." Few of the contestants took themselves as seriously as the historians who pass judgment on their performance in office. Much as it goes against conventional wisdom, John Adams was a sharp-eyed satirist. Vast, placid William Howard Taft possessed a healthy sense of the ridiculous. And a generation after his death, Harry Truman remains a bracing alternative to Washington pomposity. Indeed, I have spiced up these pages with some of Mr. Truman's observations about his fellow presidents. Like most of his comments, they do not lack for viewpoint.
The United States is probably the only country on earth that puts the pursuit of happiness right after life and liberty among our God-given rights. Laughter and liberty go well together. So do humor and perspective, especially where human frailties are concerned. "It has been my experience," said Abraham Lincoln, "that folks who have no vices generally have very few virtues."
Nothing deflates pretense like a well-timed one-liner. Take the case of Lincoln's Springfield law partner, William Herndon. As effusive as his colleague was closemouthed, Herndon delivered a characteristically fulsome description of Niagara Falls just a few days after Lincoln had chanced to see this natural wonder with his own eyes. Herndon in full flight could be something of a natural wonder himself. He pulled out all the stops to convey the visual splendors of the foaming torrent, the roar of the rapids, and the sublime majesty of a rainbow permanently suspended above the Niagara gorge.
Exhausting his vocabulary of praise, the younger man finally asked Lincoln exactly what about the experience had made the deepest impression on him.
"The thing that struck me most forcibly when I saw the Falls," said Lincoln, "was, where in the world did all that water come from?"
It's hard to believe, but there was a time in American politics when candidates thought up their own sound bites. No one was better at this than Lincoln. After his perennial rival, Stephen A. Douglas, called him two-faced, Lincoln turned to his audience and drawled, "I leave it to you. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?" Not surprisingly, Douglas complained that every one of Lincoln's jokes "seems like a whack upon my back."
According to B. A. Botkin, a scholar of American folklore, the Great Emancipator "raised the wisecrack to the level of scripture." At the same time, it must be said of Lincoln's frontier humor that it is closer in style to Mark Twain than to Noël Coward. In September 1862, the embattled president prefaced a cabinet discussion over the proposed Emancipation Proclamation by reading a slightly gamy passage from Artemus Ward's A High-Handed Outrage at Utica. As the starchy statesmen around him squirmed in discomfort, Lincoln recounted an attack upon a waxen figure of Judas in a re-creation of the Last Supper.
"Judas Iscariot can't show himself in Utiky with impunerty by a darn site!" cries Ward's unlikely hero.
Glancing up from his book, Lincoln observed a distinct lack of amusement on his colleagues' faces. "Why don't you laugh, gentlemen?" he asked. "If I didn't laugh, I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do." It's a bipartisan prescription, applicable to every occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but especially to history's favorites. As a boy Theodore Roosevelt watched Lincoln's funeral procession pass beneath the window of his New York brownstone. He developed a lifelong case of hero worship for the martyred president.
TR's own zest for life was legendary. Before a group of student athletes he expressed his guiding philosophy: "Don't flinch. Don't foul. And hit the line hard." Yet for all his triumphs, the first Roosevelt was no stranger to tragedy. He lost both his wife and his mother on the same terrible day. He saw his youngest son fall victim to enemy fire in the First World War. His political star dimmed after he left the White House. He lost as many elections as he won. But this apostle of the strenuous life never lost his sense of humor. Like Lincoln, TR used laughter as an antidote to tears.
Supplying a constant source of entertainment, the Roosevelt brood included five children and numerous pets. Characteristically, the president himself delighted in what he called Quentin's snake adventure. It seems that his youngest son had collected several snakes near the family estate on Long Island. One of the creatures escaped; the others made their way to the nation's capital, where they terrorized government officials, to the huge amusement of the Roosevelts.
"I was discussing certain matters with the attorney general," the president explained matter-of-factly, "and the snakes were easily deposited in my lap. The king snake, by the way, although most friendly with Quentin, had just been making a resolute effort to devour one of the smaller snakes. As Quentin and his menagerie were an interruption to my interview with the Department of Justice, I suggested that he go into the next room, where four congressmen were drearily waiting until I should be at leisure. I thought that he and his snakes would probably enliven their waiting time. He at once fell in with the suggestion and rushed up to the congressmen with the assurance that he would there find kindred spirits. They at first thought the snakes were wooden ones, and there was some perceptible recoil when they realized that they were alive. The last I saw of Quentin, one congressman was gingerly helping him off with his jacket, so as to let the snake crawl out of the upper end of the sleeve."
This is one way to impress lawmakers. In my own experience, presidents generally regard the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue as a snake pit.
Granted, measuring the presidents as humorists plays havoc with more conventional rankings. But what is more subversive than laughter? There is no sharper weapon than one's tongue (believe me, I've cut myself from time to time). For the whimsical, humor can serve as a verbal sword; for the shy or repressed, it can afford a shield against those who might otherwise come too close or probe too deeply.
Which brings us to those Yankee wits, Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy. Besides their New England roots, they would seem to have as much in common as chalk and (cheddar) cheese. In fact, both used laughter to puncture self-importance. Reading about one of his White House aides who had been described in a newspaper account as "coruscatingly" brilliant, Kennedy gibed, "Those guys should never forget, fifty thousand votes the other way and we'd all be coruscatingly stupid."
Soon after his confrontation with the steel industry in 1961, Kennedy said he was visited by a well-known businessman who seemed decidedly pessimistic about the economy. He tried to reassure his visitor by saying, "Why, if I weren't president, I'd be buying stock myself."
"If you weren't president," the businessman replied, "so would I."
Compared to the charismatic Kennedy, Coolidge was more arch than conservative. Denied the usual political gifts, Coolidge created a public persona that held the world at bay while allowing him to indulge a razor-edged humor. All his life, the man stereotyped as Silent Cal battled paralyzing shyness. As a boy in Vermont, the sound of strangers being entertained by his parents in the kitchen had frozen him in his tracks. For the adult Coolidge, an introvert in an extrovert's profession, greeting their counterparts on the campaign trail required an act of will. In time he conquered his crippling reserve, "but every time I meet a stranger," Coolidge acknowledged, "I've got to go through the old kitchen door back home, and it's not easy."
His reticence was matched by his canniness. Over the years, Coolidge developed his silent act into a running joke, a fierce, funny individuality cackling at pretense. His way of putting down political panhandlers was as distinctive as the broad a of his Yankee dialect. When a congresswoman from Illinois laid siege to the White House hoping to secure a federal judgeship for a prominent Chicagoan of Polish descent, she arranged for a group of Polish-Americans to lobby the president in person. Ushered into the executive office, the group shuffled its feet uncomfortably as a stony-faced Coolidge stared at the floor. After what seemed like an eternity, the president at last broke his silence.
"Mighty fine carpet there."
Both relieved and expectant, the delegation gladly nodded its concurrence.
"New one," said Coolidge. "Cost a lot of money."
At this, his guests smiled more appreciatively.
"She wore out the old one trying to get you a judge."
Thus did Coolidge enjoy a laugh on his less whimsical contemporaries. Historians, not noted for their whimsy, have by and large missed the joke. Calvin, We Hardly Knew Ye.
Sooner or later, all presidents make us laugh. Not all make us laugh with them. Much of what follows can best be categorized as insult humor — some aimed by, the rest at, the man in the White House. Contemporary journalists, for example, thought Coolidge funny in a perverse kind of way. The Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, went so far as to define democracy as "that system of government under which the people, having 35,717,342 native born adult whites to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out the Hon. Mr. Coolidge to be the head of state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies."
Mencken was even rougher on Coolidge's predecessor, dismissing the amiable Warren G. Harding as "a tinhorn politician with the manner of a rural corn doctor and the mien of a ham actor." An equal-opportunity abuser, Mencken labeled the high-minded Woodrow Wilson "The Archangel Woodrow." Urbane and polished, Wilson ranks high in any listing of amusing presidents. Few readers, I suspect, would say as much for his fellow onetime college president, James Garfield. Think again. Together this unlikely pair make up a category I call "Classroom Humorists."
Just above Wilson and Garfield is a grouping entitled "Plain Speaking, Tall Tales, and a Poker Face," encompassing Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Herbert Hoover, all of whom were generously endowed with comic sensibilities. The irrepressible Liz Carpenter, who served as Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary during her years as first lady, recalls an occasion when White House speechwriters sent President Johnson a highfalutin text replete with quotations from Aristotle.
"Aristotle!" snorted LBJ. "Those folks don't know who the hell Aristotle is." Johnson decided to credit Aristotle's words to somebody more familiar, and he inserted the phrase "as my dear old daddy used to say to me..."
Hoover, too, used humor to cut to the point. When his wife invited an African-American woman to be her guest at the White House in the summer of 1929, it touched off an uproar in some quarters. Incredible as it seems, no such courtesy had ever been extended before then. A few members of the Texas legislature even demanded the president's impeachment.
More amused than angered, Hoover reassured the first lady that she had done the morally correct thing. Besides, he told her, "one of the chief advantages of orthodox religion is that it provides a hot hell for the Texas legislature."
Another rung of the ladder is entitled "Funnier Than the Average President," and is reserved for presidents who exhibited a healthier sense of humor than most presidents, but who didn't quite make what my friend David Letterman would call my "top ten." This list begins with George Bush and ends with Bill Clinton. In between are some of America's earliest presidents, who appear to modern audiences as lifeless as the marble statues with which they are commemorated. It's not really their fault. In an age more attuned to Marilyn Monroe than James Monroe, time itself works against them. If satire closes on Saturday night, then the shelf life of most political humor rivals that of overripe bananas. Granted, no Catskills comic could have written the Declaration of Independence, but what brought a smile to Jefferson's lips is unlikely to amuse the There's Something About Mary generation.
Topicality aside, there is another reason our Founding Fathers appear so forbidding. Early historians felt the need to deify these paragons whose job was to invest a radically new, untested system of government with as much dignity as they could summon. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, James Madison allegedly made a bet with New York's Gouverneur Morris. Madison promised to treat his colleague to a handsome dinner if Morris would go up to Washington, slap him on the back, and address him by his first name. Morris accepted the wager, so the story goes, only to be rewarded by an arctic blast from the presiding officer. Morris won the dinner, while vowing never again to cross the line of familiarity with the majestic Washington.
There's nothing very funny about the story, unless you wonder why anyone would name their child Gouverneur. Like most of his fellow demigods in periwigs, however, Washington could be amusing. Soon after returning home from the convention, for example, he hired a gardener for his Mount Vernon estate. Washington drew up a contract with a hard-drinking candidate, after solemnly binding the man to perform his duties sober for one year "if allowed four dollars at Christmas, with which to be drunk four days and four nights; two dollars at Easter, to affect the same purpose; two dollars at Whitsuntide, to be drunk for two days, a dram in the morning and a drink of grog at dinner and at noon."
Everyone's heard of Washington's dentures. Has anyone ever seen them? For that matter, have you ever seen a smile cross the lips of all those other pre-Civil War presidents whose idealized portraits are so unrelentingly serious? Blame it on the distorting lens of primitive photography. The earliest cameras required too long an exposure to result in anything other than the tight-lipped, grim visages captured in daguerreotypes.
Making things worse was the fact that presidential speech and joke writers and priggish editors who insisted on cleaning up presidential language before sharing it with posterity weren't "invented" until the twentieth century. As farmers or plantation owners, most of our early presidents were accustomed to barnyard references. Yet when the grandson of John Adams set out to publish his distinguished ancestor's correspondence, he was careful to delete "low" remarks, many of them humorous and all of them revealing.
From George to George...when George Bush published a generous sampling of his most personal correspondence in 1999, it came as a revelation to many readers. Typical was this Bush diary entry for November 7, 1987: "Brandon, Iowa. A tiny little town. More people in the middle of the little town than lived in the town. They came in from everywhere. The firemen, dressed in yellow coats, holding the crowd back. Young kids, banners, homemade signs welcoming the Vice President. I go into the Brandon Feedstore, and just before walking in I was shaking hands with all the people and an older woman said to me, 'You look younger than I thought.' I said, 'A lot of people say, taller.' She said, 'No, I say a lot younger.' I said, 'Well, I'm sixty-three.' She said, 'No s---?' Everybody heard her. All of the people standing next to her looked shocked, looked kind of held back. I laughed and then they laughed like mad. It was absolutely fantastic. One of the great moments in my life politically."
Soon after succeeding George Bush in the White House, Bill Clinton confided at a Democratic fund-raising dinner, "I used to have a sense of humor, but they told me it wasn't presidential, so I had to quit."
Yeah, sure. Clinton, who often called upon Hollywood acquaintances to pen his best lines, understood that no modern president can forgo the weapon of laughter, among the most formidable in any politician's arsenal. And President Clinton was hardly the sort to embrace unilateral disarmament. Of Warren Christopher, his famously buttoned-down secretary of state, Clinton said that he was "the only man ever to eat presidential M&M's on Air Force One with a knife and fork."
At the 2000 White House Correspondents' Association dinner, a president mindful of his legacy was bold enough to joke about the scandals of his administration. "You know, the clock is running down on the Republicans in Congress, too. I feel for them. I do," said Clinton. "They've only got seven more months to investigate me. That's a lot of pressure. So little time, so many unanswered questions. For example, over the last few months, I've lost ten pounds. Where did they go? Why haven't I produced them to the independent counsel? How did some of them manage to wind up on Tim Russert [the host of NBC's Meet the Press]?"
Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, often underrated as presidents, are also underrated as humorists. They head up a category entitled "And You Always Thought They Were Dull." Ike is a hero of mine, not least because he recognized humor as a vital part "of getting along with people, of getting things done." What's more, he made no attempt to conceal his geographical loyalties. Although born in Texas, where his father had gone to find employment on the railroad, Ike returned to Abilene, Kansas, when he was two years old. For the rest of his life, therefore, Eisenhower considered himself a Kansan. As he put it, "A chicken may hatch her eggs in the oven, but they're still not biscuits."
He wasn't always so succinct. Students of the Eisenhower presidency have theorized that he sometimes deliberately scrambled his syntax in an effort to divert reporters hot on the trail of a story. Warned by his press secretary, Jim Hagerty, of a politically sensitive question sure to be raised, Ike replied, "Don't worry, Jim. If it comes up, I'll just confuse them."
You be the judge. At a 1954 press conference, the president was asked, "If you find there is no need at the session of Congress for changes in the program, would you suggest further amendments?"
"Indeed I will," replied Eisenhower. "I don't believe I have yet gotten stupid enough to believe I am so smart that I know all of the answers in advance."
Whether or not longevity is the best revenge, Gerald Ford illustrates that ex-presidents often discover a sense of humor they rarely exhibited in office. Appearing before the National Press Club on the eve of the Democratic convention that nominated Vice President Gore for president, Ford needled the vice president over his less than scintillating speaking style. "Al Gore went to the beach the other day to give a speech on the environment," said Ford. "The tide went out and never came back." Some of President Ford's golf shots may have gone astray, but if the worst thing the press can accuse you of is bumping your head — well, history will be much kinder than Dan Rather. Take it from one who fell off that stage in Chico.
Ford's successor, Jimmy Carter, has also displayed hidden reserves of laughter as an ex-president. Typical is this story from his book Living Faith. As he tells it, "this fellow died and went to heaven. When he got there, he was met by St. Peter and an angel. And St. Peter asked him, 'Tell me something about yourself.' And he said, 'I got a doctorate from a major university; I've been very successful in my business life; I've been active in my church — taught Sunday school even — and feel I'm very well qualified.'
"St. Peter said, 'What have you ever done for anybody else?' And the fellow thought for a moment and said, 'Back in the Depression years, a group of hoboes came by my house, and Ma fixed a bunch of sandwiches, and I gave them to them. And even in depressed dollars, that was worth at least fifty cents.'
"St. Peter said, 'Have you done anything more recently?'
"And the fellow said, 'As a matter of fact, just last year, my neighbor's house burned down. I looked around my back porch among some old furniture, and I found a little table and I took it over and gave it to him. That was also worth about fifty cents.'
"St. Peter said to the angel, 'Go down to earth and see if his story is true.'
"So the angel went down, came back, and said, 'Yes, sir, what he said is absolutely right. What should we do with him?'
"St. Peter said, 'Give him his dollar back and tell him to go to hell.'"
Now comes the part sure to keep this book out of several presidential birthplace gift shops — listing the chief executives who may have had many qualities, but a sense of humor wasn't high on the list. This list includes John Quincy Adams, one of the brightest men ever to serve as president. In the history books Adams languishes in the shadow of Andrew Jackson, the frontier hero and popular champion who gave his name to an age. "I was not formed to shine in company," Adams confided to his diary, "nor to be delighted with it." In modern jargon, he didn't feel our pain. On the other hand, he could write English with one hand while translating Greek with the other.
Adams's greatest gift, however, was for running down his opponents. Of one particularly obnoxious rival, he declared, "His face is livid, gaunt his whole body, his breath is green with gall; his tongue drips poison."
And they said I had a sharp tongue.
James Madison may be another victim of history. One Philadelphia delegate wrote of the little man from Virginia that he had "a remarkably sweet temper." A female visitor to his Virginia estate called the fourth president a great conversationalist and storyteller. "Every sentence he spoke was worthy of being written down," she told friends. Unfortunately, she didn't write any of them down. Nor has anyone else. On the other hand, Madison's historical stature has hardly suffered from his dry-as-dust image. It's one thing to appear on Comedy Central with Jon Stewart, something else to be the Father of the Constitution.
All of which goes to show that not every successful president requires the ability to go mano a mano with Leno or Letterman. Consider the man whose diplomatic achievements far outweighed his joke-telling abilities. Come to think of it, there must have been times when Richard Nixon looked upon Watergate as a bad joke. President Nixon and I have much in common. We both grew up amidst rural privation. We both served in World War II. We both served in the House and the Senate. Of course, there are some differences as well. That's why we call him President Nixon.
Nixon, of course, had more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine. One thing about him never changed. In her marvelous biography of her mother, Julie Eisenhower recalls an occasion on which Pat Nixon expressed amazement at her husband's perseverance in the face of criticism.
"I just get up every morning to confound my enemies," said Nixon.
Nixon probably confounded famed JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen, when the two crossed paths in Chicago soon after Kennedy's inaugural address. "I wish I had said some of those things," Nixon said.
"What part?" asked the proud Sorensen, who had written the speech. "That part about 'Ask not what your country can do for you...'?"
"No," explained Nixon. "The part that starts, 'I do solemnly swear...'"
Then, we come to my final category — eight well-intentioned, deservedly obscure leaders run over by history or reduced to the status of academic punching bag. Neither Martin Van Buren nor Millard Fillmore went gently into that good night. Each man attempted a comeback as a third-party candidate for the White House, Van Buren on the Free Soil ticket, Fillmore as a Know-Nothing (I'm not making this up. In 1856 there was a Know-
Nothing party. These days many voters regard this as a bipartisan affiliation).
I try to keep their sobering examples in mind when asked about the possibility of again seeking the presidency. Then I repeat something attributed to W. C. Fields: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it."
Can you imagine Zachary Taylor saying that?
What follows is my own admittedly unscientific attempt to rate America's presidents as humorists, the "Dole Poll of Presidential Wit and Humor" (fans of bipartisanship take note: five of those I rank in the top ten are Republicans and five are Democrats):
Copyright © 2001 by Robert J. Dole
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