tv The Presidency Humor in the White House CSPAN January 1, 2021 4:50pm-6:01pm EST
♪ ♪ american history tv is on social media. follow us at c-span history. next, on the presidency, historian h.w. brands talks about humor in the white house and the role it plays in presidential politics. he considers how funny our chief executives have been or not and whether they've used humor to their advantage. the howenstein center for presidential studies, the gerald
r. ford presidential library and museum co-hosted this event. it's just over an hour. i'm going to be talking about, well, sort of humor in the white house. and as i was thinking of this title, i realized, uh-oh, this is a potential problem because i was really talking about the president and jokes and humor. and i know enough about the history of the presidency, some of you perhaps will have caught on to this, there's a potential problem there. there were two presidents who served before the white house was the official residence of the president. and so if i wanted to say, well, the presidency in humor, humor in the white house didn't quite do it. but then i thought about it some more and actually it does work because neither of the first two president had a sense of humor.
so it gets me out of that problem. but, i'm going to follow the lead of perhaps the most successful humorist in the white house. it might not be the person you're thinking of by doing what he always did, in most cases what he did at the beginning of a talk, he started with a joke. again, some of you will have heard this joke, but please pretend you haven't heard it before and laugh at the appropriate point. so this is a joke and this is a key to part of my story. that ronald reagan used to tap. and the key is, as you'll see, ronald reagan was effectively telling the story on himself. it related to a time in his career when he didn't know sort what he was doing or where he was going. as you will know of ronald reagan, he had two careers primarily. he was a film actor.
and then he became a politician. but there was an interregnum. a period between the time basically after he stopped getting calls from hollywood producers. he couldn't get any good roles. between when his career ended and his political career. film career and political career began. and he had, well, a rather unusual position. in fact, it was a job that was invented for him by the general electric corporation. general electric was at the time the behemoth of the american economy. and reagan was their spokesman. he was a television host for the ge theater. and the ge theater was, well, an experiment in television. this is in the 1950s. and nobody knows quite what to do with tv. so, they think, what you do with the television camera is you film a play. and people would watch plays on tv. so reagan was the host.
he wasn't the star. he was in a couple of these, and he mostly introduced them and then the show went on. that's what he would do on weekends. during the week, he would travel the country giving speeches on behalf of general electric. and the glories and wonders and conveniences of electricity. better living through electricity. and he would define himself because reagan in that phase of his life was afraid to fly. and he had a written contract that he would not fly, and so he traveled by train across the country. he would go through very small towns and very often find himself addressing the local rotary club or elks or chamber of commerce. or he used to call it the rubber chicken circuit. he would find himself in small towns because he wasn't famous. he wasn't an a-list actor, he
was sort of a b-list actor. as jack warner, his boss said, when he heard that reagan was running for governor of california in the 1960s. he said, no, no, jimmy stewart for governor. reagan for best friend. that was the kind of roles he played. he's this relative nonentity and going to obscure towns and giving standard talk. the story that reagan told went like this. he is about to give a talk in some small town in the midwest, and he doesn't know the people he's going to be speaking to. it's been lined up by his publicity agent. so, he's going to address this group. and one of the locals, the program director of whatever club it was, we'll call it the elks. is going to introduce reagan. but the problem is the program director is not familiar with ronald reagan and he sees the printed name, ronald r-e-a-g-a-n
on the program, and he's supposed to introduce him and act like he knows something about him. the problem is he doesn't know how the last name r-e-a-g-a-n is supposed to be pronounced. it could be reagan, it could be reagan. people of irish background pronounce it both ways. this man is in a quandary. this is back in the 1950s. today, you can go on youtube and hear how it's pronounced. you couldn't do it then. he doesn't want to embarrass his guests or his group. he's trying to figure out how to resolve the problem. how he's going to discover how the name is pronounced. he's deep in thought the morning before the talk. it's a small town walking around one of the neighborhoods. and while he's walking he encounters one of his neighbors. the neighbor is out walking his dog. this guy actually trips over the
dog. oh, well, the neighbor says, well, joe, boy, you really look like you're worried. what's going on. joe starts to say -- he explains the deal. he started to say, he reached in his pocket and he pulls out the program. and he says, do you know this guy? have you ever heard of this guy? how do i pronounce his name? he looked at it and said, oh, it's ronald reagan. yeah, he used to be an actor. joe says, are you sure it's reagan? yeah, reagan, if you say reagan, you'll be fine. oh, boy, thanks. you lifted a huge load off my shoulders. as he's walking back, he again trips over the dog. and she says, what kind of dog is it? a bagel. [ laughter ] so this is ronald reagan's
approach. and it characterizes a large part of where i'm going to be going with my talk. by the time reagan was president, humor was considered a necessary part of the political arsenal of a president, of a candidate. and this, because, well, you know, i told you this story and no one would say it's an enormously clever story. it's enough to get a ha ha ha. reagan recognized for those years on the rubber chicken circuit, if there's an audience that doesn't know you, might be skeptical about your message that you're conveying, if you can get them to laugh, it loosens them up. it makes them feel that you're a real person and not simply this flak for ge. and it represents something of a culmination of a trend that had been going on for a long period
of time. so i'm going to cover some of that trend. now, while i was -- after i told him what the topic was going to be tonight, i sort of got to thinking about it a little bit more. and i happened to be teaching -- well, this january. just last month. a course. i teach this course every other year. it's a course on the history of the presidency. it's standard for me to begin with the course with -- i put up on a screen like this, i put an image, an illustration, in this case a portrait, of our first president and our current president. and i've been teaching it long enough that i go back to this course, back to george w. bush. and so our first president, our current president, and underneath, the one word "explain." this is the theme of the course. this is what the students have
and so there's -- they usually have a lot of positive things that can be said about them. but while they're president, typically the other party, or sometimes factions with their own party, have an incentive to tell you all the bad things about them. but once they leave office, that incentive is largely gone. this is why certain presidents fool themselves into thinking, you know, i could have run for a third term. dwight eisenhower was more popular by polling at the end of his presidency than he was at the beginning of his presidency. and he used to think, boy, i could have gotten a third term. bill clinton, bill clinton was more popular in the year 2000 than he was in the year 1993. he used to think, if he could have run for a third term, he would have run. they fool themselves because by 1960 the democrats had no
incentive to go after dwight eisenhower. they were focusing all of their fire on the next one, richard nixon. the republicans in 2000 had no particular reason to go after bill clinton anymore. he got a free pass. they were aiming their guns at al gore. so this question of sort of popularity and how presidents look better in the rear-view mirror is partly due to this artifact that nobody is sniping at them anymore. but perhaps the clearest statement, the clearest assertion of presidential decline was made by henry adams who was an observer of presidents from the -- well, he was the grandson of john adams. he was the great grandson of john adams and grandson of john quincy adams. and the adams family was in this state of political decline. there were two adams presidents in the background, but henry adams couldn't make a start in politics. henry adams became a historian.
when he was writing in the 1860s, when grant was president, this was just ten years after the publication of charles darwin, introduction of the theory of evolution. adams' take was, anybody who looks at the progression of the presidency from washington to grant understands that evolution is a crock. [ laughter ] it refutes the theory. i was going to say that, in most cases, it looks as though there's this linear line that maybe you think it goes down or up. george washington is a tough act to follow. i'm going to propose this to you. you can decide whether you agree with this or not. there is one sense, at least, in which donald trump is positively
and this is an adjective i haven't heard applied to donald trump, that donald trump is positively washingtonian. he's very much like the father of our country. and do you know what, can you guess what i'm going to say is that particular -- that particular characteristic? >> 603. >> that's not too bad. -- 6'3". >> that's not too bad. well, okay. so i hear it in the front. but i'm not going to advertise it just yet. you all know the story -- well, i don't know if you all know this. it's part of american historical lore. that george washington, you know the story about george washington and the cherry tree and how he chopped down the cherry tree and his father asked who chopped down the cherry tree. he said i cannot tell a lie. i chopped it down with my ax and so on. we have this impression that george washington couldn't tell a lie. i actually don't think that's true.
i read enough of his diaries and letters to know that he fudged the truth. but whether or not he could tell a lie, he could not tell a joke. [ laughter ] >> and he couldn't tell a joke or maybe that it's just that he wouldn't tell a joke. nor would he laugh at jokes. and this in part because he self-consciously presented himself to the world as this very sober-minded, serious character. as a young man he got a hold of this list of sort of maxims and principles of life for a young man. there's 110 of them. one of them said laugh seldom and never in distinguished company. he wrote this down. and these were words that he came to live by. i really don't know if in his private life george washington,
i don't think he told jokes. he might have laughed at jokes. in his public life he certainly did not. and people would try to warm him up. there's a story that is told on good authority about george washington at the constitutional convention. this is before he's president. he's president of the convention. and he is this austere figure. he's the commander of the continental army. he's the one who won the revolutionary war and the independence for the united states. and he's presiding over the constitutional convention. and he was chosen in part because he was very straight-laced sober-minded individual. he also wouldn't say much. he wouldn't participate in the debates. you make him president, the presiding officer, that gives him an excuse not to. but some of the members of the convention, governor morris, he lived in new york and pennsylvania. he was a delegate to the convention from pennsylvania.
and he was very much a hail fellow well met type. and he walked on a wooden leg. and the story that was sometimes told about him, he liked to tell the story that, he had lost his leg in the revolutionary war. it was a battle injury. the other story that was told about him is that he badly injured himself diving out of the bedroom window of one of his lovers just at the moment that her husband was returning home. and it was badly set and the leg had to be amputated. governor morris was one who wanted this convention to be, well, not quite as somber as it seemed to be. so he made a bet with some of his friends there, including alexander hamilton. and hamilton knew washington better than morris did. and so he made this bet that he could actually loosen up george washington.
and so hamilton said, you got a bet. what do you want the wager to be? it will be the finest dinner in philadelphia for a dozen of each of our friends. if i win, you treat us. if you win, i treat you. so he goes up to george washington and this is a break in the gathering. and he puts -- he slaps george washington on the shoulder. he says, george, how are you doing? glad to see you. and the way governor morris tells the story, he said at that moment general washington fixed me with an icy glare. and he took my hand and lifted it off his shoulder and fixed me with that gaze and all i could think about was, how can i get out of this room as quickly as possible. that was george washington.
and that was the kind of person americans expected as their president. that's the kind of person americans wanted as their president in the early days of the republic. in what i call the augustin age of the american presidency. it runs from george washington to john quincy adams. before the united states became a democracy, that is a system in which ordinary people actually exercised political power. ordinary people did not elect george washington. ordinary people for the most part did not elect the electors who chose george washington. according to the constitution you'll read that each state shall select electors and it doesn't say how. they get to choose. the legislatures of the states get to choose how the electors are chosen. until the 1820s, most state legislatures chose the electors, not voters in the state.
in that era americans expected their president to stand above them. no one wanted george washington to be just one of the gang. and this is why washington would get away with giving that reaction to governor morris because it served his purposes to be this one who held himself apart from everybody else. because that's what americans wanted. and the idea that the presidency when he became president, the presidency was a serious undertaking. and the idea that your president should have a sense of humor and laugh, especially in any kind of public setting, this just clashed with the idea that politics is a serious business. governing this country is a serious business. and so you're really hard pressed to find a sense of humor, to find anybody in the white house telling jokes, really before about andrew
jackson who is elected in 1828. even with andrew jackson, it's a little bit hard to find anything that looks like modern humor. i look up this subject understanding that conveying jokes or humor from the past to the present is a difficult undertaking. because tastes change. perhaps you've heard the saying a felonous monk, that writing about music is about dancing about architecture. well, it's a little bit like that. to translate humor from the past to the present, something is lost in the translation. but i'm going to try anyway. you look like a learned audience. andrew jackson is the first really popularly elected president. he's the one who makes the presidency preeminently the
people's office. and his election appalled members of the adams family and supporters of all those presidents who had come from the elite, he was the first real common man to be president. and especially in places like new england, around boston, around harvard college. the idea that this unlettered, westerner, this uncouth militarist should be president of the united states was something they had a really hard time getting their heads around. and john quincy adams, who was defeated by jackson in 1828 and went back to massachusetts to lick his wounds and to really fret over the future of the republic. if this is the kind of person the presidency attracts, there is no hope. well, there were people in new england, there were people at harvard who took a different view. this is the way the world is going.
we have to make our peace with it. and so the border of trustees of harvard decided that in the interest of holding out an olive branch, they were going to present -- they were going to offer to president jackson an honorary harvard degree. john quincy adams almost had a fit. he said, you can't do this. it will sully the reputation of my dear alma mater. but the occasion went forward. there were discenters on the faculty. they decided, okay, we can't stop this, but we will show jackson up. in those days, it was not unheard of and it was still accepted practice on certain occasions for academics to give their addresses, to deliver their papers in latin, the traditional language of intellectuals in the academy. and so without telling the
president of the university who was basically whose reputation was on the line here, okay, i'll be happy to speak on this occasion. it was a commencement. there were several speeches. and the speakers before jackson stood up and gave their speeches in latin with the belief that this would really confuse jackson and would be so embarrassed and humiliated and that would be the end of it. now as i say, explaining these historical stories, context is necessary. this was at a moment when jackson was holding the union together by maine force. south carolina was threatening to succeed from the union over a tariff and jackson was saying the union must hold. so this is the background. everybody is waiting to hear what the president is going to
say. jackson was the first of presidents -- this became a fairly common thing over the years, for presidents and other distinguished members of the government, secretaries of state, the marshal plan was announced in a harvard address. jackson is going to give this pronouncement on the current state. and he's also going to deal with this attempt by the harvard faculty to embarrass him. so jackson stands up. and he says, e pluribus unum. and sat down. enough of you know latin to get the joke. that's the best i got on a joke from jackson. and i have to confess, i have to confess that that story is probably somewhat exaggerated. it's in the nature of -- jackson wasn't a particularly funny guy. one of the things that you see
in the evolution of the presidency is not always that the presidents are the ones telling the jokes or telling the stories. but the president becomes the object, sometimes the butt, of the stories and the jokes. in a way that wasn't true, which really was considered with somebody like george washington to tell things like that. with jackson, things are fair game. the office of the presidency evolving until somebody like -- well, like the next really sort of ordinary person to get elected president is abraham lincoln. and he's perhaps the most famous humorist in the white house. and lincoln was known for -- this is key. you'll see a connection here between lincoln and ronald reagan. lincoln told stories. he told jokes. but he realized that in politics when you tell jokes -- jokes often have a target.
the person who's being joked about, or being teased. and lincoln understood that in politics, in democratic politics, politics asking for votes, the only safe target of a joke is you, yourself. if you target anybody else, well, you're going to alienate them and their friends and people who feel an affinity toward them. if you tell a joke about yourself, the first good thing happens is, you avoid that and the second thing is, you make people think he doesn't have a big ego. he can tell jokes about himself. it humanizes these presidents for people.
and we see the beginning of a trend that would set in really in full in the 20th century but nonetheless, if donald trump should get re-elected and gets a second term, then pretty with lincoln, this business of likability, we see it for the first time and lincoln needs to make himself likable. he also did have a certain wit. and not everybody is blessed with the kind of wit that can sort of turn a particular situation in a humorous direction. lincoln before he went into politics and after being in the house of representatives. to make a living, they had to ride the circuit with the judges. there wasn't enough business in springfield itself. there were all sorts of people who were lawyers. they could start young and hang
on until they were old. and lincoln had a lawyer friend who was a relatively young man. and things were kind of slow in this day and there was a recess and think guy was having a trial. he was conducting a trial. he was one of the attorneys in the trial. and he -- there was a recess. and this guy is young and full of injury and he considered himself something an athlete, in fact a wrestler. he got in a wrestling match just during the lunch break with this other guy, this towns person. and they're wrestling and rolling around on the ground. and this guy rips his pants and so then he, okay, the judge is back, the trial continues. and he stands up before the court and as he turns to address
the jury, it's really clear, he has this big hole in the bottom of his pants. and so the other members of the bar who were sitting around unbeknownst to the guy, they decide to take up a contribution to buy him a new pair of pants. and they silently send this subscription sheet around the courtroom. and it comes to lincoln. and lincoln was always rather thrifty with his money. he doesn't want to give any money away for causes who didn't require it. he declined to contribute. and he wrote instead, i cannot contribute to the end in view. [ laughter ] >> when lincoln would introduce himself to audiences, in one of his coming-out speeches for the new republican party, lincoln began his political life as a wig. but the wig party declined. it was replaced by the republican party. and the republicans held their first convention in illinois, bloomington, illinois. and lincoln attended. and he wasn't that well known.
he was somewhat known. but he needed to introduce himself to the group there. and so he began by saying that when he was coming -- he was riding his horse to the convention. he encountered a woman on the road who was coming the other way. and the woman stopped him and said, sir, i believe you are the ugliest man i have ever seen. and lincoln says, well, i responded, what could i say. this is the way god made me and i -- sorry. but i don't have any excuse for that. okay. but the least you could have done was stay home. on another occasion, lincoln sort of lampooned his appearance. when one of his political opponents described him as two-faced. and lincoln said, two-faced. you got to be kidding. you think if i had another one, i would wear this one? lincoln used humor to warm up
audiences. but he also used humor to get him through the dark days of the civil war. lincoln -- the members of lincoln's cabinet, very often groaned when lincoln would start to tell a story. because they knew these stories would go on and on and there was business to be done. sometimes the stories had a point, a moral. for example, at the end of the civil war, when jefferson davis was on the run and nobody could quite figure out what to do with him, lincoln did not want to try him for treason. lincoln wished that the davis problem would simply go away. lincoln was all in favor of a very speedy and lenient reconstruction. but he had to have sort of some policy about what to do with confederate leaders. he was asked, mr. president, what should we do? lincoln said it brings me in mind of this baptist that i used to know.
this baptist was quite opposed to the use of any alcoholic beverages. he would not go near the stuff. but he came down with a fever. and his doctor prescribed a certain amount of whiskey, once a day. and the baptist couldn't decide whether to follow his conscience or his doctors orders. he came one a solution. he told his wife, there's a punch bowl over there and if unbeknownst to me you could slip a little bit of that whiskey into the punch, then i could drink it and all would be well. well, says lincoln, if somehow mr. davis could slip out of the country unbeknownst to me, then much of our problem would go away.
the institution of the presidency changed dramatically at the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th through the 19th century, the president and the presidency were not at the certain of american political life. they were not expected to be. by the constitution, congress was supposed to be the leading institution, the president was simply the chief executive. he would execute the will of congress. and most presidents of the 19th century followed that model. there were only a couple of 19th century presidents that people remember, andrew jackson, abe lincoln, maybe thomas jefferson. james polk has his fan club. for the most part, presidents of the 19th century are unmemorable by design. things change in the 20th century when and because the united states for the first time has a full-time foreign policy. i've written about 19th century
presidents and when i write about a presidency, i sort of have this idea. i think there's got to be a lot on foreign policy. so when i was writing about andrew jackson, it's got to be at least a chapter on foreign policy. there's really not that much foreign policy. it's only in the 20th century when the united states becomes a world power that the united states has a full-time foreign policy and then the president has to take charge. the president is commander in chief of the armed forces and the de facto diplomat in chief and it's in the 20th century that the presidency takes center stage in american politics, where it remains. and so the presidency rewarded people who had these big personalities, these people that -- the kind of people who would arrest your attention when you walked in the room.
the first president to fit that mold, the one who set the model for modern presidents was theodore roosevelt. and he really did take up all the air in the room when he came in. and his daughter, alice, who had some of this in herself, and new her father very well said, if you want to understand my father, you have to remember that he has to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. and so this is theodore roosevelt. the odd things is, and maybe this isn't so odd, but roosevelt could not appreciate jokes told at his expense. he never -- roosevelt himself didn't tell jokes. but most presidents eventually would get to the point where they would learn to laugh when people made jokes about them because that was the easiest way of dealing with it. roosevelt had to train himself to do this. there was one moment when roosevelt -- theodore roosevelt
considered his most important accomplishment as president to be getting the panama canal under construction. this was his contribution to world history, he said. to get it going, roosevelt has to foment a revolution in panama. to break panama free from colombia. under international law or even ordinary codes of ethics, it was highly problematic.ñ79myñ but roosevelt convened a cabinet session to basically convince everybody in the cabinet that he had done the right thing. and after he gave this long explanation as to why it needed to be done, his attorney general stood up and said, mr. president, really? you should not let such a great accomplishment as this be tainted by any width of legality. roosevelt didn't laugh. the other members of the cabinet did. but i will -- i have to give roosevelt credit for this.
roosevelt was one of the first presidents to be the target of other people's humor in a particular form. editorial cartoons. and editorial cartoonists had a field day with roosevelt. he had features that were easily caricatured. he had the glasses, the mustache. he was sort of full of himself and saying bully and delighted. and there were various cartoonists who could skewer roosevelt. and roosevelt would respond by writing a letter to the cartoonist and said, oh, i got a great laugh out of it. which he didn't. and he said, i liked it so much, could you send me the original. [ laughter ] >> nobody ever new what happened to the originals. but it was his way. he understood that he needed to do this even though it came hard.
the presidency would continue to evolve and the biggest evolution of the presidency as it relates to this question of humor and how presidents portray themselves is the development of the modern mass media. in fact, roosevelt in those editorial cartoons, the reason that they were so popular and effective was, that roosevelt was the first president in the age of the modern mass newspaper, of the penny press. technological developments made it possible for newspapers to be printed and sold for a penny. newspapers in the middle of the 19th century were like expensive magazines today. ordinary people didn't read newspapers. you had to have a certain threshold of income. by the beginning of the 20th century, everybody could read newspapers. and this contributes to the rise of the president as the center of american politics.
reporters can tell stories about a large group like congress. but it's only with great difficulty. it's really tempting for reporters to tell their stories about the a single individual. and if you have an arresting individual like theodore roosevelt, it's easier to tell stories about. as the technology changes, the system selects for those characteristics as an aside. but it's not really an aside. one of the principles that i've inferred from my study of the presidency is, for better or for worse. this applies to whether you like the president or not. we get the presidents we deserve. and i say this quite literally because we chose them. now, maybe you didn't choose this particular president, or that particular president. but this is the best method anybody has come up with for selecting presidents. have this vote. we could argue about the
electoral college. that falls into the category, that if it didn't exist, nobody would invent it today. but it does exist and this is where we are. but, anyway, so once these expectations developed for presidents, presidents adapt themselves to them and they become the kind of -- the candidates who can live up to the expectations. harry truman was somebody who never would have been president if the only way to the white house was through the front door. but harry truman was one of several presidents who became president as a coincidence of the death of his predecessor. when harry truman became president, he told reporters, i'm going to be as straight-talking as i ever was before i became president. and harry truman was a really unlikely president. he was the creature of one of the last urban political
machines in kansas city. and he was known primarily as a political hack. but he was loyal to franklin roosevelt and he needed a new vice presidential running mate in 1944. i'm reminded how much things have changed over time in what we expect of your presidents but also how presidents and their running mates are chosen. so we live in a time when presidents -- whoever gets the nomination of the party gets to choose often without consulting anybody else, consider sarah palin or even dan quayle, without telling anybody else, this is my choice. that was not the case for most of american history. most american history, the presidents were told this is going to be your running mate. because the leaders of the party had the interest of the party at heart and they needed to balance the ticket geographically and by
age and other things. the democrats told roosevelt in 1944, you got to get rid of your current vice president henry wallace. it was clear that franklin roosevelt was not in good health. there was a concern that roosevelt would die in office and leave henry wallace as president of the united states. and so they threatened mutiny at the 1944 convention. roosevelt says, all right, get that guy from kansas city. he had hardly met harry truman. so truman becomes president. says he's going to be this straight-talking guy. he did hold press conferences. this is another important part of the story. through the truman era, presidential press conferences, as they were called, were off-the-record events. these were for background. the president could be quoted
only with his explicit permission. when harry truman would hold press conferences, he would say something or other and reporters would have to say, can we quote you on that. we live in this age of utter transparency. if a president says something inadvertently, it's considered true game. harry truman discovered there were limits on his candor. when he was thinking aloud, saying in the middle of the korean war, yeah, maybe we'll use nuclear weapons. can we quote you? yeah, you can quote me. and that makes the headlines, and the world all of a sudden is alarmed there's going to be a nuclear war. truman doesn't have that much in the way of quotable jokes. but i'm going to share a story with you. this is truman once he got out of the white house. he discovered that he could be freer with what he was saying. i have a very good friend who lives in austin who grew up in kansas city. he grew up in kansas city in the
1950s. and he recalled visiting the truman library, the second of the presidential libraries after the frankly roosevelt library. he goes to his school, takes a field trip to the truman library. and my friend greg, he's a third grader. they're all getting out of the bus to go into the library. who should they see but former president harry truman who lived just several blocks from the library, had an office in the library. he would get up and walk to the library and talk with the people on the way. he didn't have security in the way. he would talk to the people. he started chats up this group of third graders. so what do you know about history and what do you know about politics? truman, the last president not to have a college degree, but he prided himself on his knowledge of history because he read a lot. he was quizzing the kids. and truman liked to show you have how much he knew about history.
he was going to demonstrate that he knew more than a third grader. and my friend greg shakes his head at this. greg says, the president stopped and he said, okay, kids, i've got a question for you. you probably know that bottom the house of representatives and the senate have various committees and they deal with issues and in each of the houses there's a committee that deals with our relations with other countries. in the house of representatives it's called the committee on foreign affairs. in the senate it's called the committee on foreign relations. kids, do you know why the senate committee is called the committee on foreign relations? and greg and the other third graders, they have no idea what to say. and truman says, it's because senators are too old to have affairs! [ laughter ]
>> anyway, so i looked -- i looked for good jokes told by dwight eisenhower. the best i could come up with is eisenhower's definition of an atheist. he says, it's somebody who goes to a football game where notre dame plays smu and he doesn't care who wins. [ laughter ] >> okay. i'm running out of time. so i'm going to tell you -- i got to tell you a story about lyndon johnson. and this is one, lyndon johnson -- it's not at all clear that lyndon johnson has much of a sense of humor. stories were told about lyndon johnson rather than stories told by lyndon johnson. but here's one that does capture the essence of lyndon johnson.
and it's told of the 1960 democratic campaign for the nomination for president. and lyndon johnson has thrown his hat in the ring and the other two principal candidates are a senator from missouri and john kennedy, a junior senator from massachusetts. and the three men are sitting in the green room ahead of this debate. they're about to have a debate. why the green rooms are called the green rooms? i don't know. i've been in lots of them and none of them have been green. they're making small talk. and kennedy says, stewart, i have to tell you something, something very strange that happened to me. i had a dream last night and in my dream god reached down from heaven and tapped me on the
shoulder and said, jack, you're my boy. this is your year. you are going to win the democratic nomination. you are going to be the next president of the united states. what do you think of that? so stewart looks at kennedy. seemington, sort of a mod tell of a senator, this square-jawed guy with this great main of white hair. he said, jack, i don't know what to tell you. because, you see, i had a dream last night and in the dream god reached down from heaven and tapped me on the shoulder. and he said, stew, for your long and faithful service, you are going to be rewarded.
you will win the democratic nomination. you will be the next president of the united states. so simonington looks at kennedy, looks at johnson. johnson looks at the other two. now, when i tell this story to my students in austin where the johnson library is located, i ask them, how many of you have been to the lyndon johnson library, which is there? and any of you by any chance been to the lyndon johnson library. it's unusual in greeting you before you go in is a life-size statue of lyndon johnson. and i invite my students to do this, especially those who think they have ideas of a career in politics. one of the ways to determine, i think, whether you might be good at a career is to measure yourself against people who actually do that career, do that occupation. if you think you want to be a teacher, follow a teacher around. if you think you want to be a engineer, lawyer or doctor, see
what they do on a daily basis. i tell the students who think maybe they want to go into politics, go over there, stand in front of that statue. look lyndon johnson in the eye and see how you measure up. one of the reasons i tell them this is that the statue of johnson is very life like. and some of you will have a mental image of lyndon johnson. he had an unusually large head and really big ears. and by this time he had kind of jowls. and when johnson would get sort of invested in something that he was saying, he would often shake his head, in this case he did shake his head, and those big ears would flap a little bit, and the jowls would -- the waves would go on the jowls. this is what he did. and he said, stewart, jack, i don't know what to tell you.
because you see i had a dream last night and i don't remember tapping either one of you on the shoulder. [ laughter ] >> okay. i'm going to stop there. i'm going to stop there. see if there are any responses, any questions. and so we'll see where we go. i certainly don't want to overstay my welcome. questions. any reactions? yes, sir, in the back. >> obviously "saturday night live" has done a lot of president stuff. what do you think -- >> i'll repeat it, go ahead. what do i think of "saturday night live"? who did the best presidential impersonation of all? >> that's a hard question to answer in any way that will get general assent. a lot of it depends on how much you dislike the presidents. "saturday night live," which
started airing during the presidency of gerald ford. and gerald ford was the first victim of "saturday night live." and "saturday night live" really did change the context for presidential humor because it was the first regularly scheduled satire spoof on in a certain sense, it was an equal opportunity caricaturist. and satirist. and so i didn't really matter what the politics of the president were. the cast on "saturday night live" went after whoever happened to be in the white house. their business was to get laughs and to sort of make fun of presidents. but it really did -- it raised the bar for a president's ability to roll with a joke. and so gerald ford was quite
unfairly lampooned. but lampoons are always unfair. in ford's case, it was an entirely mischaracterization. chevy chase was the one who was part of the original cast of "saturday night live." and he used to do the stumble down, the steps of air force one and pull the tablecloth off the table and do all of this clumsy stuff, giving out the impression that gerald ford was a stumble bum when in fact ford was probably the best athlete, one of the most graceful individuals to occupy the white house. and ford could have tried to dispute this characterization of him but he was shrewd enough to realize it would have been a waste of time. so he basically grinned and bore it. but there was one particular occasion, i don't remember exactly the context. where he had a chance to make a little bit of a comeback.
this falls in the category, you might need this punch line explained, but i'm going to go with it anyway. chevy chase has been lampooning gerald ford for some while. and the two of them meet on some particular occasion. and chevy chase wants to let forward know that this is all in good fun. and so he says, gerald ford, you are really actually a really good president. and ford without missing a beat, and you, chevy chase are a very funny suburb. [ laughter ] >> but i will tell you for my money, for my money, the best presidential "saturday night live" connection is one that goes full circle with dana carvey and george h.w. bush. so dana carvey became famous for
his characterization of bush. and bush is sometimes telegraphic style of speech. and while bush was president, he -- he would smile, that's funny. after he left the white house, he no longer had to do that. but george h.w. bush, i had the honor and the pleasure to encounter him a few times. i used to teach at texas a&m at the george bush school of public service. he would come to my classes. and he always struck me as one of the most decent individuals to occupy the white house. and the most -- i had no idea that he had this sense of humor and this capacity for humor. but not long after he left the white house. about the time that his presidential library was opening and school was opening at texas a&m, he gave a closed-door address to students at texas,
closed door in the sense that the press was not allowed. one of the things that presidents often have a hard time with, and george h.w. bush had this problem, when the press was around, he had to act presidential. and so he -- lyndon johnson had the same problem. once he knew there were no reporters and cameras, he could let himself go. and he did an imitation of dana carvey imitating himself. and i have to tell you, this audience of students, these are undergraduates. and they had no particular opinion of george bush one way or the other. but they were almost literally rolling in the aisles. and finally barbara bush had to pull out the hook and say, get him out of here. he's not a comedian. that's what i remember about "saturday night live" and presidents. other questions? reactions? yes, okay.
>> circling back to your initial talk about the president, this president, and george washington, i'm assuming it's lack of humor that is the similar characteristic, could you expound on that a little bit. >> one of the striking things to me about president trump is his -- what shall i say, his lack of an observable sense of humor. and not even any attempt to fake it. i would have said before president trump was elected, of course, i would have said a lot of things -- i had very different expectations about changes in the presidency and i sort of thought they were unroll backable, that these changes were permanent. i've had to change a lot of that. but every president really from about -- definitely from john kennedy or you could say even earlier than that, had to at least fake a sense of humor. and sometimes it meant just laughing at the jokes people told about you. sometimes it would be telling jokes yourself.
and so presidents would sort of do this sort of thing and i assumed -- and it just sort of seems logical that if you want to get the support of people, you try to do stuff that will make you likable and make you popular. and every president did. and presidents very often, barack obama, for example, often it plays into this stereotype, however false the stereotype might be. in one of his last speeches before the national correspondents club where presidents would give their johnny carson monologue. and obama, he showed before and after picture of him. here he is as president and he's got a lot of gray hair.case he d before and after picture of him. here he is as president and he's got a lot of great hair. and then here he is before he becomes president. he says those days when i was a strappy young muslim socialist.
donald trump had definitely taken a different route to the white house. i wasn't quite so surprised of the different route to the white house. he was the ultimate people's anger. people's anger at the establishment. donald trump, i like to, like in himself to andrew jackson. as the anti establishment candidate. and president. i think there is less similarity between the individuals trump and jackson, then there is in the people who voted for him. in both cases it was a rejection of this entrenched elite. the people who voted for andrew jackson against john quincy adams were very much of in the same mindset as the people who voted for don't trump versus hillary clinton. elaine clinton was clearly the
candidate of the establishment and trump was the outsider. the idea of mobilizing that dissatisfaction, that anger as part of the campaign, i don't find it surprising. i surprised it actually worked as well as it did. but then i was surprised when there was and i could say until now there are still has not been any effort to broaden the people who chose him. president trump has i don't know if this was a deliberate decision or if he operated on instinct. he seems to have gone to the white house. candidates not worth anything. he seems to be content with appealing to his base. and not really trying much to broaden the base. any holds rallies, he holds political rallies this is something no president, no sitting president did. few presidents before they were elected, the idea of holding
rallies after you've been elected is something brand-new. the point of the rallies seem to be keeping stoking that dissatisfaction with the status quo. ronald reagan did it to a certain degree, even after four years of president. reagan tried to run as the anti establishment candidate. it's great if you could pull it off it's great but after you've been at the center of the establishment as president. i don't know if this is a new model. president trump has been able to accomplish what he's accomplished with no observable sense of humor. again i don't know if he is a funny guy and tells jokes to family or other people, he seems to make so far little to no effort to do it as president. is this something you or is this an aberration. i get asked questions about the meaning of the trump presidency fairly often, my answer is to
take the historians dodge and say it is too early to tell. as i like to say, historians could really run without a long way. so edward gibbon who wrote six volume history of the decline and follow the roman empire which was published in the late 1700s. it was describing events that had happened 1000 years before. he was once asked, what is the lasting significance of rome. and you know what he said? it's too soon to tell. i can give you a date. a precise date on which it will be no longer too soon to tell. that is election day 2020. and the reason i say this is, presidents to make a lasting mark on the american political system, who are elevated into
the ranks of really important presidents, are exclusively those presidents who get reelected. presidents for whom have a chance to vote on their performance, presidents get elected the first time on the promise. and promises one thing, you can be a persuasive promise or but it doesn't always pay off, and maybe you don't deliver on your promises or change your mind or something. i'm not gonna say that anybody could get elected on a promise, but you can get elected on promises and not follow through. you get reelected on the performance. and any president who puts himself and they're all hymns until now, puts himself up for reelection, is basically asking for in the british context if this was a vote of confidence. if voters reelect you buy however small a margin, even if the second go around in 2020
should be with a minority of the popular vote, we got the set of rules and if under those rules you win, then that says the american people liked what you did. does it mean they liked what you did in an absolute sense, in an ideal world world? no. we like you more than the person you are running against, but that's the standard in every election. no one gets to run against nothing. á often votes are negative votes. we don't like the other scoundrel worse than this idiot, but nonetheless. if donald trump should get reelected and gets a second term, then all of the changes that he has announced and changes to american foreign policy, changes to american domestic policy. those will receive the ratification of voters. then people like me, we'll have to say all right something new and potentially permanent is
going on. if for whatever reason, he does not get a second term. if he runs and is defeated in the general election, if he's challenged in the primaries and loses. should he resign or be impeached and be convicted? and he doesn't get a second term. then it would be entirely possible to say, this is a onetime thing. it represents the state of mind of voters at this particular moment. for me, whether has to do with humor, whether has to do with attitudes or any number of things, presidents are less important for what they are then what they represent. one of the things the most represent is they are barometers of the political culture. we get the presidents we deserve. it voters say we like this new dispensations and it goes on, then there will have been this affective change of mind the american political culture and
that is something that will be of lasting importance. if you ask me in december 2020, i will no longer be able to say too soon to tell. please invite me back but let me make it april 2021? may okay very good. thank you very much been a wonderful audience. thank you all. >> sunday on the presidency, national portrait gallery senior historian gwendolyn dubois shaw provides an overview of the galleries new exhibit. every eye is upon me first ladies of the united states. here's a preview >> here's a little small portrait 45 inches of item a keenly. when i was doing research for the exhibition have prince
spent some time at the library they were very helpful, i learned so much about i'd mckinley since they occupied the mckinley house that it belong to her family. and one of the things that really stands out about this portrait is item akin lee and this basic life it was not very easy for her when after marrying william mckinley, the couple had two daughters who then died and pretty quick succession at two and four and were buried. this stereo scope picture of their grieves was published as a series of stereo graphs these three dimensional images you live through a viewer and the two images combined together to create a three dimensional effect. this series was published when her husband william mckinley was assassinated.
this was as if things gonna gotten any better or worse for biden mckinley after losing her daughter's very young and then louisiana has been. during the mckinley presidency, she was very firm an ill as she had migraines and seizures, she would sit next to him at dinner which was unusual. usually you would have the president and one end and the first lady at the other hand. that's next to each other so if she had a seizure, he would put his napkin her handkerchief over her face to preserve her dignity. in this portrait, in this miniature watercolor on ivory, she shows herself. she has been shown to the side in profile. it emphasizes her hair which is very short. at the end of the century doctors believed cutting your hair as a woman would leave
those conditions. she showing her medical conditions by allowing us to see that her hair is closely cropped. >> sunday, on the presidency. national portrait gallery senior historian gwendolyn dubois exhibits the galleries new exhibits. -- here's a preview. >> my fellow americans, i have always thought new year's day was an especially american tradition. full of optimism and hope are famous for in our daily lives. energy and confidence we call the american spirit. perhaps it's because we know we can control our own destiny, we believe deep down inside that working together, we can make each new year better than the old. although last night was one of parties, want today is one of resolutions. during the old year we decide what we can do better in the new. most of us are with our familiyo