Profound Questions: Should the President Make Me Laugh?
Originally published August 30, 2011
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
"Silent" Calvin Coolidge, the popular New England wit, was approached at a dinner party by a young woman. "A friend bet me I couldn't get you to say three words," she said. Not missing a beat, Cal replied: "Guards, kill!"
Or something like that. The details have gotten flexible over the years, but the underlying truth remains: Cal was a hoot. And don't we want that from a president? Our infrastructure is crumbling; our homes are worthless husks; and the 500 million man Chinese army is just weeks away from completing a superweapon that uses our securitized debt for ammo. The country needs to laugh.
So shouldn't our leader be funny?
It wasn't in the original job description. In the 1790s you didn't have to be personable to lead; it was enough if the British had shot at you or attempted to burn your house down. Openly joking about opponents wasn't advisable in the age of dueling. And talking directly to the public was considered gauche, so presidents were funny only around friends; that great story about the plantation owner's daughter, the mule and the powdered wig was strictly between Jefferson and Monroe. The best you could do for diplomatic situations was marry into hilarity. James Madison was the coldest of fish, but Dolley ran social functions with a warm sense of humor and some impressive cleavage -- which goes a long way when you want people to laugh at your jokes, provided you're a woman.
But the country has come a long way. We have mass media now, and less yellow fever, and more leisure time. There's an electorate starved for entertainment, and the presidents can not only speak directly to the people, but also pre-empt what passes for sitcoms these days. The only real barrier between the White House and comedy superstardom -- the one tiny little hiccup -- is that Americans hate hearing about politics.
"I love politics!" you might protest, which is to say you love YOUR politics. The way you feel about government is colored by your views of human nature, and the person who mocks your thoughts on Medicare therefore craps on your soul. If you're ever performing stand-up comedy, and you want strangers to hate you very quickly, tell them they voted wrong.
"'The Daily Show'!" you might say, but first-run broadcasts of the most popular political satire show clock something like 2.2 million viewers: way less than 1 percent of America and about half a million fewer viewers than reruns of "Family Guy" on the Cartoon Network. A homicidal baby and a talking dog are of more interest to the average person than Jon Stewart criticizing Fox News. Which only 3.5 million people watch, by the way. Most people outsource their politics to Congress and worry about actual important things, such as college football and that smell from the septic tank.
Comics are supposed to stick to what they know, but the president can't joke about his job and still speak to the masses. Even the low-hanging fruit can be poison. Our current stand-up leader, speaking at a black tie media dinner in 2010, threatened to kill the Jonas Brothers with a Predator drone. And for suggesting that bipartisan, consensus-building course of action, he got reamed the next day by liberal activists and commentators who thought he was too flip.
There's only one topic that's always safe for a president to joke about, one theme that offends no American and unites us in laughter: how much the president sucks.
Reagan was decrepit, and won 49 states in 1984 while pointing it out. "When Andrew Jackson left the White House, he was 75, and he was still vigorous," he later said. "I know that because he told me." Sen. Kennedy in 1958 joked to the Gridiron Club that his dad hoped for a close re-election campaign, because he didn't want to pay for a landslide. The journalists were so charmed that no one seemed to mind all that much when Joe Kennedy actually did pay to make his son president. Lincoln charmed audiences by observing how ugly he was. They're remembered as the greatest communicators, because they understood Americans: we founded a country with the specific intent of being able to laugh in the face of our superiors. It's what makes the country great and service at food courts so awful.
Self-deprecation tells the little guy: I know I have problems. It sends the secondary message that maybe, just maybe, you're working on them. And who would you rather hear bad news from, an affable dude who, like you, cheerily struggles with self-sabotage, or Jimmy Carter? Comedy leads to empathy.
So yes, the president should make you laugh, if he knows what's good for him. Our current leader should use humor way more than he does. He has the skills -- in a recent survey of presidential history enthusiasts who are also professional stand-up comedians that saw the president do a comedy set live once, 100 percent said the guy has great timing and delivery. But in major appearances, he's usually a fountain of exasperation who brings the room down.
He should remember Nixon, who had no humor at all. A self-deprecating guy might have charmed his way past Watergate with a few press conferences; chuckle at mistakes and the cover-up isn't necessary. But he was always defiant when humor might have saved the day. After a defeat in 1962, he told the press, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
And he should remember the words of another guy: "There are times when you might as well laugh at yourself because you can be sure others are going to laugh at you. ... [Laughter] is probably the clearest and most resounding expression of freedom we have."
That would be Gerald Ford, who had the good sense to let people kick him around. He was a proud man -- a gifted athlete with a distinguished career of service -- but he took over a country disgusted with government and muddling through dark times. So when people mocked him as a stumbling oaf, he tried to laugh along with them, because he knew it was part of his job. He's remembered as a healer and decent guy, and that's nothing to laugh at.