Bill O'Reilly Knocks Obama's Comedic Move, But Lincoln's Humor Also Drew Criticism

03/12/2014 01:17 pm ET | Updated Mar 12, 2014

NEW YORK -- Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said Tuesday night that unlike President Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln wouldn't have appeared on "Between Two Ferns," the offbeat Web series hosted by actor Zach Galifianakis.

O'Reilly said he's "all for PR" and that it would have been fine for Jay Carney, the president's press secretary, to take questions from Galifianakis in an attempt to promote Obamacare to young people.

"But the president of the United States?" asked O'Reilly, author of the best-selling book Killing Lincoln, a nonfiction account of Lincoln's assassination. "All I can tell you is Abe Lincoln would not have done it. There comes a point when serious times call for serious action."

Lincoln's accomplishments have left him rightly regarded as one of the greatest American presidents. But Lincoln was also a man who enjoyed telling off-color jokes, and his bawdy sense of humor attracted its share of press criticism.

Henry Villard, a journalist who covered Lincoln, recalled later in The Atlantic how he "could not take a real personal liking to the man." The reason, Villard wrote, was Lincoln’s sense of humor, an "inborn weakness for which he was even then notorious and so remained during his great public career."

"He was inordinately fond of jokes, anecdotes, and stories," Villard continued. "He loved to hear them, and still more to tell them himself out of the inexhaustible supply provided by his good memory and his fertile fancy. There would have been no harm in this but for the fact that, the coarser the joke, the lower the anecdote, and the more risky the story, the more he enjoyed them, especially when they were of his own invention. He possessed, moreover, a singular ingenuity in bringing about occasions in conversation for indulgences of this kind."

Lincoln was long "attracted to off-color jokes,” Fred Kaplan wrote in his recent biography of the 16th president. "Earthy, naturalistic, and frank," Kaplan wrote, "he told stories and used language considered appropriate only for male ears."

Covering then President-Elect Lincoln in 1860, Villard wrote how he "never hesitated to tell a coarse or even outright nasty story, if it served his purpose." And Lincoln's "fondness for low talk clung to him even in the White House."

But while Villard "felt disgust and humiliation that such a person should have been called upon to direct the destinies of a great nation in the direst period of its history," he concluded that Lincoln's "achievements during the next few years proved him to be one of the great leaders of mankind in adversity, in whom low leanings only set off more strikingly his better qualities."

Obama’s team, both in the White House and during the two campaigns, has been willing to bypass traditional media pit stops to promote his message and engage with outlets where policy isn't the priority. Following Obama's poor showing in the first 2012 debate against Mitt Romney, this reporter questioned whether he'd have performed better if he'd been taking questions from The New York Times and The Washington Post instead of softballs from People, Entertainment Weekly and a Miami radio host called "Pimp with the Limp."

Of course, Obama won reelection, and in looking for a new way to promote his administration's Healthcare.gov site to a young audience decided to try FunnyOrDie.com –- a move that has apparently worked, based on early traffic.

This presidential turn toward pop culture is not without precedent. Richard Nixon appeared on "Laugh-In," while Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton made stops on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Arsenio Hall Show," respectively. Presidents have also cracked jokes onstage at the White House Correspondents Association dinner and the Radio and Television Correspondents dinner -- and have rankled their critics by doing so.

During the March 2004 Radio and Television dinner, George W. Bush joked about not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the false pretext for invading the country a year earlier and starting a war that led to the deaths of several thousand American soldiers and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians.

That period could also be described as "serious times," but according to progressive watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Fox News stars didn't seem bothered by Bush's jokes as the situation in Iraq unraveled.

"Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace said he thought the jokes were funny, and Brit Hume described Bush's routine as "a good-natured performance, and it made him look good only in the sense that it showed he could poke fun at himself."

Hume added: "And you have to feel like saying to people, 'Just get over it.'"

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