Mark Twain wrote that exposure to good satire -- that is, savage wit at the service of passionate conviction -- makes citizens less likely to be "shriveled into sheep."
So there will be considerably less bleating coming from the American people during the campaign ahead. Because six years after 9/11, six years after Ari Fleischer warned Americans they "need to watch what they say, watch what they do," six years after Graydon Carter declared the death of the age of irony, and 278 years after Jonathan Swift made his Modest Proposal that Irish children be sold as food, we find ourselves living in a Golden Age of political satire -- Maher, Stewart, Colbert, who eviscerates Bush by defending him, and Borat holding a very disturbing mirror up to America.
In June 2005, soon after the Huffington Post launched, Danielle Crittenden, one of our original bloggers, began to publish her satiric take on the secret IM sessions of, among others, George W. Bush ("Kickass43"), Bill Clinton ("Ladeezman42"), Tony Blair ("Sxybritguy10"), and Laura Bush ("Hot_Librarian"). The Secret IMs proved very popular, and also proved -- Fox's short-lived Half Hour Comedy Hour notwithstanding -- that political humor is not the exclusive domain of progressives.
Earlier this month, Danielle published The President's Secret IMs, a collection of her HuffPost series, to very favorable reviews. To help celebrate, we asked political observers on both sides of the aisle to weigh in on the question: Who was our most comical president? And by comical, we mean the Oval Office occupant who best lent himself to being satirized.
Their varied selections follow below. Give them a read then let us know in the comments section who you think the most comical president was.
NORA EPHRON The most comical president of my lifetime was, of course, Gerald Ford. By a mile. No one comes close, because he said stupid things and fell down a lot, lending himself to brilliant impersonations, most famously by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. Also, and this is crucial -- no other president was in office such a short time and did so little. It's important not to be there for long, and not to do much; otherwise you are not comical at all. George Bush, for instance, might have challenged Gerald Ford for the most comical president owing to his grammatical problems but he blew that title by doing a bunch of seriously bad things and now, instead, he is the most inept and dangerous and tragic and stupid and dangerous and, most of all, worst president of my lifetime. Incidentally, I have been startled to discover that there is a move on to rehabilitate Gerald Ford. In a recent memoir, I just read, Alan Greenspan says he was a nice guy and fairly well-informed and not at all unintelligent. What is one to do with this information? It's almost as confusing as the reputation of Ronald Reagan.
PEGGY NOONAN Lincoln was the most comic president. He had a natural and gifted sense of the comicalness of people, of their flaws and tendencies and nature. His humor was often broad -- he liked to read aloud in dialect -- but his deepest subject was human nature, who we are. This is the great subject of all non-scientific and non-mathematical geniuses. Ronald Reagan was comic too, and like Lincoln he used jokes to make or underscore a political point. (We all know examples. Is the federal government too costly and overstaffed? There was the guy at the Bureau of Indian Affairs who was found sobbing at his desk. What's the trouble? He raised his head. "My Indian died.") But Reagan's humor often had a mordant edge, a genial blackness. He liked jokes like this. "The teacher was trying to impress on her students that winter had come, and they should try to avoid colds. And so she told a heartrending tale about her onetime little brother. As the story went, her little brother was a bright and fun loving boy, and he went out with his sled and stayed out too long, caught cold and then pneumonia, and three days later he died. When she finished with the tale there was dead silence in the room. She thought she had really got through to them, when a voice in the back said, 'Where's the sled?'" JFK was ironic and quick and also had a mordant edge. There was a whole world of political experience in his reply to the boy who asked him how he became a war hero. "It was easy," he said, "they sank my boat." Once, early in the administration, Kennedy aid Arthur Schlessinger was called, in a newspaper column, "corruscatingly brilliant." JFK heard about it and said in a pleasant way that maybe they should all keep in mind that a hundred thousand votes the other way and they'd all be corruscatingly stupid. Here's an odd thing -- or maybe it isn't odd, and maybe some of HuffPo's contributors have a thought about it. I do not know of a single picture of Kennedy or Reagan, or I think any other modern president, in which he is dissolved in laughter, in which he's clearly cracking up at something someone else has said or done, or he has said. They smile a great deal but they don't dissolve in laughter, and in the memoirs of those around them I can't think of an instance in which a president howled with laughter. They look merry sometimes or amused, but beyond that they are contained. I am referring not just to official White House photographer pictures but informal photos, pictures taken by friends. It seems to me there is something odd in this -- men with strong comic sensibilities who love and wield humor but don't get slayed by it. I urge HuffPo readers to send in any pictures they might have or know of of presidents cracking up. (I wonder if Harry Shearer has a thought on how professional comedians relate to humor. Do they, because it is their profession, come to see humor as a thing that is used more than experienced? When a joke becomes material is it no longer funny?) The most accidentally amusing president? Our current president and his predecessor are and were often unintentionally amusing. But let's skip over them. It's hard not to think of Jerry Ford tripping down the stairs of Air Force One, but I believe those knew him and who note, helplessly, that he was of course a natural athlete, and graceful. It was media gotcha, but it worked because the idea of Ford's physical clumsiness expressed a larger truth, that he was not facile with words. He was articulate but not eloquent, and he was deliberate in his speech, and relatively uninflective. He also smoked a pipe and cleared his throat. He seemed verbally slow, or stumbling, and that trait was illustrated by the tapes of him falling down. And of course Chevy Chase made it famous, and also, in retrospect, loveable. I always like it that they became friends. The single most comic picture of a president? Calvin Coolidge in the Indian headdress comes close, but the purity of it is lessened by Coolidge's look of amiable knowledge of how stupid he looks. That picture is said to be the reason JFK would never, ever, put on a funny hat, including on his last day on earth, when someone in Texas gave him a cowboy hat and he said he'd go home and wear it in the White House. Well, I'll leave it with hats. Maybe the silliest picture of a president is the photo of Harry Truman on board the USS Augusta on the way home from the Potsdam conference. He's this little keg of a man in a double breasted suit and he's wearing a hat that's a sort of large pancake-like cap. You get the impression it was a middle aged midwesterner's idea of snappy head gear, and it's really awful. He had been a haberdasher in an earlier life. You wonder, What was he thinking? But for enduring comic glee I think no one beats Nixon. He was so imitate-able, so jagged in a way you could capture, that years after he left office almost anyone could still make people laugh by doing a Nixon -- furrowing your brow, hunching your shoulders, lowering your voice and saying, "You must have me confused with someone who gives a shit." The other day I was at a street fare on Lexington Avenue and they were selling a t-shirt that said "I Miss Nixon." It was a commentary on Bush, but it may also have reflected missing a president you could ape with something like delight.
HARRY SHEARER Our most comical president? In every sense, for every reason, Richard M. Nixon. Let's start with character: a self-made and self-destroyed man, a fellow who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and then could never forgive his enemies for the fact that he beat them. Then, let's go to a personality so afraid of self-revelation that every defense was an orgy of accidental exposure, as when, in the middle of denying he was obsessing on Watergate, he referred to his meeting with the chief executive of Washington State, "Governor Evidence". Then career choice: a man with absolutely no gift for small talk choosing a profession which absolutely demands a gift for easy chit-chat. And finally last words: at his (gloriously documented) final ten minutes before resigning the presidency, he chooses (given the previous) the worst possible option for filling the time: making joking small talk with a silent, stone-faced crew. Game over. Nobody even came close.
CONRAD BLACK My vote for the most comical president goes to Jimmy Carter. The wittiest would probably be Lincoln, Truman, Kennedy, and in his coarse way, Lyndon Johnson. Some were nondescript, and some were easily mocked, like Nixon and Ford and the Bushes. But Nixon and Ford and George Bush Sr. all had long careers and were basically serious people, and Nixon, whatever anyone thinks of him, was a great historic figure whose presidency was an immense drama and not at all comical.
The name Jimmy, other than when used by intimates, (Al Smith called FDR Frankie), is comical for a US president. The intense unworldliness of someone from Plains, Georgia, who recruited almost his whole administration from the Trilateral Commission because that was the only place where he had met serious people from outside Georgia, was comical. It caused Tad Szulc to claim in the New York Times that the Trilateral Commission was an international conspiracy to rule the world conceived by David Rockefeller.
His southern Baptist moralism, though probably heartfelt, was often comical: "I lust after women in my mind." So do most men, including most US presidents, (e.g. Wilson, FDR, Ike, Kennedy, LBJ, Clinton, and not just in their minds), but none of them ever said such a thing publicly. "The tax code is a disgrace to the human race." No one likes paying taxes, but isn't this a comical outburst of overstated righteousness, especially as he didn't want to lower rates ?
Saying he had "learned a lot about the Russians" from their invasion of Afghanistan would have been comical if it had not been so naïve. The same could be said of some of his 180 degree turns. He pressured the NATO allies to deploy the neutron warhead, and suddenly decided, as if as a result of divine revelation, that it was an immoral weapon because it killed people without destroying buildings. The aircraft carrier America and its task force were on their way to the Indian Ocean from Monday to Saturday, with great fanfare, to practice some gunboat diplomacy, but then abruptly turned around and came home with no explanation, then or subsequently. These abrupt changes were worrisome at the time but are amusing now.
Dealing with the energy crisis by sitting in a wing chair in the White House in a cardigan, beside a roaring fire in the fireplace, and telling everyone to lower their thermostats, was comical. When he lectured the country about a national malaise, even though, if there was one, the only visible symptom of it was his presence in the White House, was also comical.
President Bush Sr. should not have jogged past reporters and said: "Read my hips." President Clinton looked absurd jogging with his secret service agents and then stopping to eat three Big Macs. But President Carter went jogging, with the press invited to film him, and broke down and had to finish the jog in the back of one of the 26-foot White House limousines. Why didn't he just break into a walk? As he was merely winded and not actually sick, it was comical.
I cannot recall any president being involved in anything so ludicrous as Jimmy Carter's encounter with the supposedly fierce, aquatic rabbit. Richard Nixon's "I'm not a crook;" Gerry Ford's tumble into Austria down the gangplank of his airplane; LBJ's exposition of his scar; none of these were particularly funny, though they were undignified. Calvin Coolidge in his Indian head-dress and the 320 pound William Howard Taft on a pony, were comical still pictures. The malapropisms of Warren Harding, who liked to "bloviate," and of the Bushes, were sometimes funny.
But when Jimmy Carter said that he had been paddling a canoe when a swimming rabbit tried to attack him, and the Secret Service released photographs of this encounter, it was the most comical moment I am aware of in the history of the presidency.
That night, Johnny Carson, who normally warmed his Tonight Show audience up with ten minutes of jokes, discussed the commander in chief''s perilous encounter with the rabbit for nearly half an hour. It was then that I realized that he could not be reelected. Any president who can get that treatment from so perceptive an observer of humorous events as Johnny Carson, has missed his true calling. Jimmy Carter has his merits and had some successes, but he should have been a comedian, and not a president.
DAVID FRUM The most comical president? I nominate... William Henry Harrison.
Harrison is barely remembered now. He was the "Tippecanoe" in the "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" campaign of 1840. His party, the Whigs, presented him to the voters as a tough frontiersman, "born in a log cabin and raised on hard cider." In fact, he was a Virginia aristocrat born at Berkeley plantation and educated at Hampden-Sidney College and the University of Pennsylvania. When he won the presidency, he decided to use his inaugural address to step out from behind his campaign image and prove himself an educated man. At more than 8,000 words, Harrison's is the longest address on record. It took two hours to deliver, even after extensive editing by Daniel Webster. It began with a disquisition on Roman electioneering and worked its way through to a study of Athenian constitutionalism after close and prolonged explanations of Whig party doctrine, backed by quotations from prominent British political theorists. Nobody would ever again dare suggest that the author of this learned document could possibly have been born in a log cabin or nurtured on anything other than aged madeira, not cheap cider.
Unfortunately for Harrison, Inaugural Day of 1841 proved bitterly cold. The oldest man to reach the presidency until Ronald Reagan, Harrison insisted on delivering his speech without an overcoat. He caught ill, struggled for a month against the horrible maltreatments of his doctors, and eventually succumbed. You could say he died of his own pomposity.
What? You think that's sad, not funny? Well, remember what Groucho Marx said about the difference between amateur and professional comedians:
"An amateur thinks it's really funny if you dress a man up as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair, and give the wheelchair a push that sends it spinning down a slope towards a stone wall. For a pro, it's got to be a real old lady."
Gore Vidal told me that President Lincoln had funny stories (routines, if you will) that he would tell at the appropriate time to make a point. Adlai Stevenson was very witty as, of course, JFK was. But alas, they were not a repository of humor for humorists.
Ronald Reagan was without question the greatest source of comic material of any president in our complex history.
I have often said that Reagan wrote a lot of my material. At first there was a reflexive kind of self-censorship by some so as not to appear anti-Reagan, which by implication meant anti- conservative. Some of us, on the other hand, chose to do our jobs and attack the obvious absurdities and comic implications of a Reagan presidency. One of my early pieces of material, entitled "Reaganonomics," included a litany of its true meaning of food stamps (lick this!), school lunches (eat tree bark!), unwed mothers (suck dick next time!) and so on. Initially this material did not get big laughs and in some cases I was heckled for dissing Reagan but lo and behold, as his tenure progressed, this material got bigger laughs and his actions and ruminations become a constant source of raw comic material for many in the comic art.
Even after his second term he remained for some time an ongoing comedic repository. Thank you, Mr. President.
The current occupant of our White House has crossed over beyond the comic realm and unfortunately plunged us all into a mirthless world of now hollow jokes that no longer echo with the healing power of laughter we all so desperately need.
PAUL SLANSKY That surreally malevolent visage. The widow's peak, the beetle brows, the shifty eyes, the stubbly jowls, the sweaty upper lip above the inharmoniously prissy mouth, and, smack dab in the middle, that penis of a nose.
The physical oafishness. That jerky out-of-syncness bespeaking the man's discomfort in, and desperate efforts to escape from, his own skin, a lifelong dissonance culminating in a Brobdingnagian orgy of incongruousness as he thrust his arms into the air in a V for Victory salute at his moment of ultimate disgrace.
The verbal awkwardness. The exquisite Freudian slips -- Washington governor Dan Evans becoming "Governor Evidence" as the Watergate noose tightened -- and the preternatural difficulty with small talk, never more blatantly on display than with the pitiful effort at male camaraderie that inspired his never-to-be-surpassed-in-the-annals-of-oral-clumsiness query to David Frost, "Well, did you do any fornicating this weekend?"
The obtuse shamelessness. Say what you will about this being the age of Too Much Information, but this man was on television fifty-five years ago, saving his place on the Republican ticket by offering up stunning nuggets of privacy -- how much money he owed his parents, how little life insurance he had, which nice clothes his wife couldn't afford -- as said wife looked on in obvious agony.
The indiscriminate contempt for all nationalities and ethnicities, especially Jews. The hours upon hours of anti-Semitic ranting captured for posterity by his own taping system. "The government is full of Jews." "Most Jews are disloyal." "Get me the names of the Jews." "How many were Jews?" "He's a kike." You get the idea. He was not a fan.
The unabashed criminality, also a matter of public record thanks to his tapes. "Break into the place, rifle the files." "Blow the safe." "Go in and knock their heads off." "Perjury is an awful hard rap to prove." "Goddamn it, forget the law!" Forget the law!
The never-ending tsunami of self-loathing -- the man clearly despised himself so intensely that our abhorrence of him, while unavoidable, was redundant -- and the relentless self-destruction it engendered. His disastrous decision to debate without make-up. His bitterly self-immolating "last press conference." His coming back and winning the presidency in order to achieve the highest possible pinnacle from which to fling himself. This man should have been number one on his own enemies list. In 1969, his younger daughter told a TV interviewer that her father was "the happiest president the country ever had." This wasn't true.
Richard Milhous Nixon is more than just the most mockable American president of our lifetimes. He is the most mockable American of our lifetimes, an absurd amalgamation of the worst of human nature, all of it increasingly on display the more he tried to hide it. I admit I'm a little giddy now after wallowing in all this once again, but it doesn't seem presumptuous to declare Tricky Dick the most mockable political figure America has ever produced.
JOE AND JERRY LONG Stop... You're Killin Us.
The presidency is not inherently zany.
Yes there are many droll moments. Ronald Reagan, with a twinkle in his eye and a Hollywood yarn on his lips, massively redistributing wealth to the wealthiest. LBJ exhibiting his beagle and his gall bladder scar as bombs turned Vietnamese children to jelly. Woodrow Wilson striving to make the world safe for racism.
And no doubt there are madcap presidential antics lost in the mists of legend. Chester A. Arthur was said to enjoy being introduced at formal gatherings as Arthur A. Chester before entering the room backwards. Rutherford B. Hayes once found an entire week of breakfasts concealed in his beard. James Buchanan liked to dress up as a woman. (One of these may be true.)
There is also the unintentionally funny. Anyone who slogs their way through William Henry Harrison's Inaugural opus, with Harrison intoning round about word 15,000 that "under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term," will readily concede that Harrison deserved to die.
And yes, we can always take comfort in satire. In speaking truth to power. Thomas Paine accusing George Washington of being "treacherous in private friendship. . . and a hypocrite in public life." H. L. Mencken, with cigar and typewriter, matchlessly chronicling the idiocy around him. The pure joy of Hunter Thompson trying to maintain on the campaign trail in '72. Yes we can take comfort. If by "comfort" you mean blowing your brains out, or suffering a massive stroke rendering you unable to read and write, or having your remains missing for nearly two hundred years.
John Adams was slightly unhinged, married a hectoring shrew, and signed the Sedition Act. Harry Truman gave us the national security state. Fortunately for them, David McCullough happened by and it was hagiography at first sight. Ours is a land where the most pertinent historical facts can only be found in the fiction of Gore Vidal.
So we await the avalanche of tomes that will follow the glob of pus that is our president back to Crawford. Not the ones by blithering nincompoops such as Fred Barnes or the earnest cabana boys at National Review, but weighty reassessments by David McCullough Jr. or Thomas Friedman III. And we laugh, secure in the knowledge that all of us will, every day, in the possible words of Richard Nixon, 'take it up the ass' from whoever sits atop the throne of our rapidly expiring empire.
When Bill Clinton left the White House, the damage his sleazy, self-centered administration inflicted could be wiped away by a mop and bucket guy from the late, lamented Times Square peep show booths. When our current Rodent In Chief sashays off, the building will have to be disinfected as if for hantavirus, lest anyone inhale the terminal putrefaction of cronyism, incompetence and psychotic absoluteness staining everything our nation claims to be.
At least a generation of sunlight and air and scrubbing awaits us... and there's not much comical in that.
Chat with GoEd, 12:07 p.m.
GoEd: Mr. President?
GoEd: I'm sorry to bother you during lunch
GoEd: I've got a request from the press office to run by you.
GoEd: I don't know that acronym, sir.
Kickass43: scuse me ed
Kickass43: mouth wuz full
GoEd: The Huffington Post...
GoEd: (that's the left-wing website run by Arianna Huffington FYI)
GoEd: is taking nominations for the most comedic president...
Kickass43: ed like I kno ur nu 2 this * counslor 2 th prez * stuff
Kickass43: but ol danno wd nvr hav bothrd me
Kickass43: * intruptd my LUNCH *
Kickass43: 2 tell me sum lefty rag wuz nominatin me 4 lamest prez
GoEd: "Most comedic" sir.
GoEd: But they're not nominating YOU
GoEd: I mean the Huffington Post itself is not
GoEd: (BTW it's an online journal so I don't think you can call it a "rag"
GoEd: "rag" usually refers to the print medium)
GoEd: It wants you to participate in a symposium
GoEd: between left and right
GoEd: Topic: Which president lent himself most to ridicule?
GoEd: I thought you might enjoy it Mr. President.
GoEd: A chance to make fun of someone else for a change.
Kickass43: wen I need 2 make fun of sum1
Kickass43: I jus go down 2 th press room
Kickass43: tell stretch...
Kickass43: *David Gregory *
GoEd: Oh right
Kickass43: tell stretch that im not likin his queshuns
Kickass43: gna hav the buildrs shrink his nu cubicl by anuddr ft
Kickass43: we've gottit down to 6 X 4
Kickass43: & 6ft is th HT!!
Kickass43: heh heh
Kickass43: :-I :-0 :-I
GoEd: I'm not quite sure about that last line of symbols
GoEd: I'm getting the hang of it
Kickass43: yeh well get th hang of this:
Kickass43: I dont do simp...
Kickass43: 4 lefty rags
Kickass43: * blags*
Kickass43: (blog + rag)
Kickass43: dont do simpos period
GoEd: I thought that might be your reaction
GoEd: But here's my thinking...
Kickass43: im not payin u 2 think
Kickass43: im payin u 2 sit outside my door
Kickass43: & keep things quiet
Kickass43: 4 th nxt 15 mos
Kickass43: ALSO: get my lunch rite!
Kickass43: guac on th *side *
GoEd: I'm really sorry about the guacamole Mr. President
Kickass43: danno wuz GR8 w lunch
Kickass43: 11:45 bam! on my dsk
GoEd: I'll endeavour to do better with your lunch in the future
Kickass43: u gtta get ther b4 th line starts
Kickass43: & b4 thers nuthin left of th chips
GoEd: Yes sir.
GoEd: But if I may just make one small suggestion
GoEd: in favor of doing the symposium...
Kickass43: o man
Kickass43: b quik
GoEd: If you want things to * stay * quiet
GoEd: it may be good to engender some good will among your toughest critics
GoEd: i.e. the Huffington Post
GoEd: I'm thinking of those post-election months
GoEd: when you'll want to push through some pardons
GoEd: and maybe an appointment or two.
Kickass43: is harriet aftr u agen?!
GoEd: I'd be lying if I didn't admit she's nothing if not persistent
GoEd: Says it would be a shame if "sexism" and "elitism"
GoEd: interfered with her appointment to the ambassadorship of Italy
Kickass43: dang broad duznt evn speak italian!
GoEd: she also mentioned that several publishers are bidding for her memoirs
Kickass43: hers will make greenspans seem XXX
GoEd: yes but I'm not sure we want to take that chance right now
GoEd: She's feeling very hard done by
GoEd: better to keep her happy
Kickass43: y duznt any1 care if IM happy?!
Kickass43: (eg guac on side)
Kickass43: (c above)
GoEd: And it would be nice if we could get Scooter off the White House lawn.
GoEd: I notice his pencil-selling franchise is not doing so well.
Kickass43: th guitar wuz wrse
Kickass43: he sooo cdnt sing
GoEd: Yes, but even that was better than the organ and monkey.
Kickass43: I nerly split my pants wen th monkey poopd on the indoneshun delagashun
GoEd: Now he's threatening to bring in a crippled dog.
GoEd: I say: let's get him re-admitted to the bar. Fast.
Kickass43: k fine
Kickass43: I'll do it
Kickass43: get th writers on it
Kickass43: but jus 1 thing:
Kickass43: can I choos any prez?
GoEd: Yes sir.
GoEd: Anyone you like.
Kickass43: tell em I wna french 1
Kickass43: th french presidents r alwys so funny
GoEd: Sorry but I think your choice has to be American...
Kickass43: bak 2 wrk ed
Kickass43: busy busy
Kickass43: I gotta big stak of
Kickass43: chx tortillas
Kickass43: on my dsk
GoEd: Thomas Jefferson might count as French...?
Kickass43: DEAL W IT ED
Kickass43: & deal w harriet & scooty 2
Kickass43: like I sed
Kickass43: I want it QUIET out ther
GoEd: Muy, sir.
Kickass43: gd boy
Kickass43: ur getting it
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