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tv   The Presidency Humor in the White House  CSPAN  April 1, 2021 8:00pm-9:09pm EDT

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yesterday. this was decide where 46 years ago, former president winston churchill made his famous address, warning of an iron curtain this sending around the eastern bloc countries. up next on the presidency, his
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story in h.w. brands talks about humor in the white house and the role it plays in presidential politics from george washington to donald trump. he considers how funny the chief executives have been, or not, and whether they have used humor to their advantage. the center for presidential studies, gerald ford presidential foundation, and gerald ford presidential library and museum cohosted this event. it's just over an hour. >> i will be talking about humor in the white house. as i was thinking of this title, i realized, this is a potential problem, because i was really talking about the presidents and jokes and humor, and i know enough about the history of the presidency, and some of you will have caught on, there is a potential problem there. there were two presidents who served before the white house was the official residence of
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the president. if i wanted to say the presidency and humor, humor in the white house didn't quite do it. then i thought about it s'more, and actually, it does work. neither of the first two presidents had a sense of humor. [laughs] [laughs] so it gets me out of that problem. but i'm going to follow the lead of, perhaps, the most successful humourist in the white house. he might not be the person you are thinking of, by doing what he always did, or in most cases, what he did at the beginning of a top. he started with a joke. some of you will have heard this joke. please pretend you haven't heard it before and laugh at the appropriate point. this is a joke, and this is a key to part of my story. ronald reagan used to tell this joke. the key, as you see, is that reagan was effectively telling this story on himself. it related to a time in his
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career when he didn't know 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 a period in between, the time after he stopped getting calls from hollywood producers, he couldn't get any good roles, between when his career ended and his political career began. he had a rather unusual position. in fact, it was a job that was invented for him by the general electric corporation. general electric was the great industrial behemoths of the american economy. reagan was there paid spokesman. he was a host, a television host, for the g.e. theater.
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and the g.e. theater was an experiment in television. this was in the 19 fifties. no one knows what to do with tv and they think we can do filmed plays, and people watch plays 1lays, and people watch plays reagan was the host. he was not the star. he was in a couple of these, but he mostly just introduced them. 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 inconveniences of electricity. better living through electricity. reagan, and that phase of his life, who was afraid to fly. he had written into his contract that he would not fly. he traveled by train across the country and would go through small towns. often, he would find himself addressing the local rotary club, or the elks, or the chamber of commerce.
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he used to call it the chicken circuit. he would find himself and small towns were people didn't know who he was because he wasn't famous. he was never an a list actor. he was a bee list actor. jack warner, when he heard reagan was running for president, or governor in the 1960s, he said no. jimmy stewart for governor. reagan for best friend. that was the kind of roles he played. anyway, he is a relative non entity, and he is going to these obscure towns and giving standard talks. the story reagan told one like this. he is about to give a top, in some small town in the midwest. he doesn't know the people he is going to be speaking to. it's been lined up by his publicity agent. he will address this group. one of the locals, the program
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director of whatever club it was, is going to introduce reagan. the program director is not familiar with ronald reagan, and he simply sees the printed name ronald reagan on the program. he is supposed to introduce him. the problem is, he doesn't know how the last name reagan is supposed to be pronounced. it could be reagan. it could be reagan. people of irish background pronounce it both ways. so this man is in a quandary. this is back in the 19 fifties. today, you could just go on youtube and someone would be introducing him and you could hear how it was pronounced. this guy is pretty conscientious and wants to get it right. he doesn't want to embarrass the guest or embarrass the group. he is trying to figure out how to resolve the problem, how to discover how the name is pronounced. he is deep in thought on the
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morning before the top. it's a small town and he is walking around like this. while he's walking, he encounters one of his neighbors. the neighbor is out walking his dog. this guy trips over the dog and the neighbor says, joe, you look like you are really worried. what's going on? joe starts to say they20xt?2ñ sd is starting to pull the program out of his pocket. he says do you know this guy? have you ever heard of this guy? how do i pronounce his name? the man says, that's ronald reagan. he used to be an actor. are you sure it's reagan? >> yes, say reagan and it will be fine. >> you lifted a huge load off my shoulders. he starts walking back and he repeats to himself, reagan, reagan, reagan. as he's walking back, he again
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trips over the dog. he looks down and says that's a good dog. what kind of dog is? it a bagel. [laughs] [laughs] [laughs] so this is ronald reagan's approach. it characterizes a large part of where i'm going to be going with my top. by the time reagan was president humor was considered a necessary part of the political arsenal of the president of a candidate. . ,. -- reagan recognize from those years on the rubber chicken circuit that if there is an audience that doesn't know you if there is an audience that might be a bit skeptical about the message you are conveying, if you can get them to laugh, it loosens them up.
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it makes them feel you are a real person and not simply a flak for ge it worked for the reagan as governor, and as president of the united states. it represented something of a culmination of a trend that had been going on for a long period of time. i'm going to cover some of that trend. after i said what the topic would be today, i got to thinking, and i happened to be teaching last month a course. i teach it every other year. it's a course on the history of the presidency. it's standard for me to begin the course with, i put up on a screen like this an image, an illustration, a portrait of the first president and our current president.
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i've been teaching it long enough that i go back to george w. bush. our first president, our current president, and underneath, the one word explain. this is the theme of the course and what students have to do on their final exam. how did we get from george washington to george w. bush? how did we get from george washington to brock obama? how do we get from george washington to donald trump? one of the striking things is that if you go from george washington to most presidents before the current president, you see kind of linear progression. some people would think that it's a decline, the curve slopes down. in fact, this question, this comparison between the first president and current president goes all the way back to the second president. presidents always look better in the rearview mirror than
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they do when they are right front and center. part of this is we tend to forget the failures and remember the successes. that's part of it. the other thing is presidents are usually pretty talented people. they usually have a lot of positive things that can be said about them, but while they are president, typically, the other party, or factions within their own party, have an incentive to tell you all the bad things about them. once they leave office, the incentive is largely gone. this is why certain presidents fool themselves into thinking, 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 i could have gotten a third term. bill clinton was more popular
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in the year 2000 than he was in the year 1993. he used to think that if he could have run for a third term, he would have won. they fool themselves because by 1960, the democrats had no incentive to go after dwight eisenhower. they were focusing all their fire on the next one, richard nixon. republicans in 2000 had no particular reason to go after bill clinton anymore. he got a free pass. they were aiming the guns of al gore. the question of popularity and how presidents look better in the rearview mirror is partly due to this artifact that no one is sniping at them anymore. when you are in office, everyone is. perhaps the clearest statement, clearest assertion of presidential decline, was made by henry adams, an observer of presidents from, well, he was the grandson of john adams, the great grandson of john adams
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and the grandson of john quincy adams. the adams family was in a state of political decline where there were two adams presidents in the background, and we couldn't even make a start in politics. henry became a very distinguished historian, and when he was writing in the 18 sixties, early 18 seventies, when ulysses grant was president, and this was just ten years after the publication of charles darwin, the introduction of the theory of evolution, and adams's take was anybody who looked at the progression of the presidency from george washington to ulysses grant understands the evolution is a crock. [laughs] it utterly refutes the theory. i was going to say that in most cases, it looks as though there
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is a linear line that maybe you think goes down or maybe goes up. but washington is a tough act to follow. i will propose this to you and you can decide if you agree or not. there is at least one sense in which donald trump is positively, and this is an adjective i have not heard applied to donald trump, donald trump is positively washingtonian. he is very much like the father of our country. and can you guess what i'm going to say is that particular characteristic? well, okay. i hear it in the front but i won't advertize it just yet. you all know the story. maybe you all don't know it. it is part of american historical lore that george washington, you know the story
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about washington and the cherry tree and how he chopped down the cherry tree. his father asked him who chopped down and he said i cannot tell alive. we have the impression that george washington couldn't tell ally. back to think that's true. i read enough to know it's true. the weather not george washington couldn't tell a lie, he could not tell a joke. and he couldn't tell a joke or maybe it's just that he wouldn't tell a choke. 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 principles of life for a young man. there's something like ten of them and one of them said, last
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seldom and never in distinguished company. he wrote this down. and these were words that he came to live by. now, i really don't know if in his private life, george washington -- i don't know he told jokes. he might have laughed, but no 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 court authority about george washington at the constitutional convention, this is before he's president. he's actually president of the convention. and, he is this austere figure, he was the commander of the continental army, he's the one who won the revolutionary war, there for the independence for these united states. and he's presiding over the constitutional convention and he was chosen, in part because he was this very straight laced, sober minded individual. he also wouldn't say much, it was known that he wouldn't participate, and you make a
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president, the presiding officer and they tell him not to. but some of the other members, the convention, they -- who had lived different times in new york and pennsylvania. and 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 land, and the story that was sometimes told about him, he like to tell the story that he lost his leg in the revolutionary war. it was a bad injury. the already -- the other story he like to tell was that he badly injured himself, dove out of -- one of his just as the moment that his husband was returning home. and it was heavily and amputated. anyway, governor morris was one who wanted this convention to be, well, not quite as -- so he made a bet with some of
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his friends there, including an -- alexander hamilton who led the other side, and hamilton knew washington better then morris did. and so he made this bet that he could actually loosen up george washington. and so, hamilton said, you would you want to wager to be? it will be the finest dinner in philadelphia for 11 of each of our friends. so if i went, and then 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 -- slaps george washington on his shoulders, puts his arm around. and he says george, how -- how are you doing? glad to see you. and the way governor morris tells the story, he sat at that moment, general washington fixed me with and i seek glare. and he took my hand and lifted
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it off the shoulder and fixed meet with that gays 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 has their president. that's the kind of person americans wanted as the president in the early days of the republic. in what i call the agustin age of the american presidency. the age that runs from george washington up to john quincy adams. before the united states became a democracy, that is a system in which ordinary people lack actually exercise political power. ordinary people did not elect george washington, ordinary people for the most part did not even elect the electors who told george washington. according to the constitution, and there are copies of the howard stands giving way, you will read that each state shall
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select the electors. and it doesn't say how. they get the truth, the legislation and states get to choose how the elections are chosen. into late as the 18 twenties, owes the state legislators chose the electors, not voters in the state. and in that era, americans expected their president to stand above them. no one wanted george washington to be just one of the gang. this is why washington could get away with, giving that reaction to governor morris. because it really 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, this just clashed with
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the idea that politics is a serious building. governing this country is a serious business. and so, he was really hard-pressed to find a sense of humor, to find anybody in the white house telling jokes, really before about andrew jackson, who was elected in 1828. even with andrew jackson, it's a little bit hard to find anything that looks like a modern humor. i kick up this subject understanding that conveying jokes or humor from the past to the president is a difficult undertaking. because taste change. and perhaps you've heard the felonious amongst that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. while, it's a little bit like that. to translate, illegal sea, to translate humor from past to the president. something is lost in the
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translation, but i'm going to try anyway and i think you look like and learned oddly it's. so i think you're going to be able to get this one. andrew jackson is the first really popularly elected president. he's the one who makes the presidency predominately that peoples office. and his election appalled members of the establishment. members of the adams family and supporters of all those presidents who had come from the elite, from the american aristocracy. he was the first common man to be president. and especially in places like new england, around boston, around harvard college. the idea that this on when weathered westerner, this uncouth person should be president of united states was something that really had a hard time getting their heads around and john quincy adams, who was defeated by jackson in 1828 went back to massachusetts to lick his wounds and to
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really fret over the future of the republic. 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 board of trustees of harvard decided that in the interest of holding out an olive branch, they were going to present, there were going to offer to president jackson, and already harvard degree. john quincy adams almost had a fit. and he wrote to the president of harvard saying you can't do this, it will destroy the reputation of my dear alma mater. but the occasion went forward. and they decided, ok, we can't stop this. but we will show jackson up. in those days, it was not unheard of, it was still
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accepted practice on certain occasions for academics to give their addresses, to deliver their papers in latin. their traditional language of intellectuals in the academy. and so, without telling the president of the university, basically whose reputation was an online set, okay sure, i'll be happy to speak on this occasion. and it was the commencement and so there were several peace peaches. and the speakers before jackson stood up and gave their speeches in latin. with the belief that this would really flunks jackson, he obviously would not know what was happening. and would be so embarrassed that he would be humiliated and be shown up and that would be it. now, as i say, with explaining these historical stories, context is necessary. this was at a moment when jackson was holding the union together by main force, south carolina was threatening to
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secede from the union over a tariff that it didn't like. and jackson was -- the union is central. the union must the fold. so this is the background, and everybody is waiting to hear what the president is going to say. jackson was the first of presidents and this became fairly common thing over the years for presidents and other distinguished members of this secretaries is faith, the marshall plan for example was announced and a harvard commencement address. so jackson is going to give this pronouncement on the 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 -- and sat down. all right, an enough of you know you're laughing to get the choke. so, anyway, that's the best i got on a joke from jackson.
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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 particularly a funny guy but one of the things that you see and the evolution of the presidency is not always that the presidents are the ones telling the trucks are 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, we really considered the majesty with someone like george washington to tell things like that. but with jackson, things are fair game. the office of the presidency evolves until somebody like the next really sort of ordinary person to get elected president is abraham lincoln. and abraham lincoln is perhaps the most famous or humorous in the white house. and lincoln was known for, and this is key, and you'll see a connection here between lincoln
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and ronald reagan. lincoln told stories. he told jokes but he realized that in politics, when you tell jokes, jokes often had a target. the person who is being joked about or being pieced and lincoln understood that in politics, in democratic politics, the only safe target of a joke is you, yourself. if you target anybody else, while you're going to alienate them and their friends and people who fear an affinity towards them. if you tell a joke about yourself, at the first thing happens is that 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. he humanizes these presidents for the people. and we see the beginning of a
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trend that would set in, really in full and the 20th century whereby the 20th century, certainly by the second half of the 20th century, if you have to figure out who was going to win any, and you give an election, you can look at things like unemployment rates and you can look at political platforms and you can look at out of the things, but the most reliable single indicator is what you could generically call a likability index, which of the candidates would you rather sit down and have a beer with? and if there is a clear difference between the two candidates, that candidate is likely to win. where with lincoln, this business of likability, we see it for the first time in lincoln, really needs to make himself a likable. he also did have a certain with. and not everybody is placed with the kind of weight that can turn a particular situation in a humorous direction but this is a story told about can, but will see that lincoln has the punchline. so lincoln before he went into
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politics, and after his -- was a practicing warrior. and lawyers in springfield illinois, to make a living, they had to rides the circuit with the judges. that wasn't enough business in springfield itself so they would go out and we're all sorts of people who are lawyers. they could start john and they would hang on to until they were old and lincoln had a lawyer friend, maybe a lawyer acquaintance was relatively hung man. and things were quiet of slow in this day, or more precisely, there was -- this guy was having a trial. he was conducting a trial. he was one of the attorneys and file. so there's a recess, and this guy's young and full of energy and he considered himself somewhat of a wrestler. and so he got in a wrestling match, just during their lunch break with this other guy, distanced person and they were wrestling in the rolling around on the ground and this guy rips his pants and so, the judges
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back and the trial continues and he stands up before the court, and he turns to address the jury, it's really clear, he's got this big hole in the bottom of stance. the other members of the bar who were sitting around, unbeknownst, decide to take up a contribution to buy him a new pair of pants. they silently send this subscription sheet around the courtroom it comes to lincoln lincoln was always rather thrifty. he didn't want to give any money away for causes that didn't require it. he declined to contribute and wrote instead, i cannot contribute to the end in view. [laughs] [laughs] 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
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whip but the wig party declined early in his career and was replaced by the republicans the republicans held their first convention in wilmington, illinois. lincoln attended and was not that well known. he needed to introduce himself to the group there he began by saying that when he was riding his horse to the convention he encountered a woman on the road who was coming the other way the woman stopped him and said sir i believe you are the ugliest man i have ever seen. and lincoln responded this is the way god made me, and i'm sorry, but i don't have apologies for that. she said the least you could have done is stay home. on another occasion, lincoln
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lampooned his appearance when one of his political opponents described him as too faced. lincoln said two faced, you must be kidding me. do 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. the members of lincoln's cabinet very offline groaned when lincoln would start to tell a story, because they knew the stories would go on, and on. there was business to be done. sometimes the stories had a moral. for example, at the end of the civil war, when jefferson davis was on the run and no one could quite figure out what to do with him, lincoln did not want to try him for treason. lincoln wished the davis problem would simply go away. he was all in favor of a speedy end lenient reconstruction.
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but he had to have some policy to do with confederate leaders. he was asked what to do. lincoln said it brings me in mind of this baptist i used to know. the 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 dram of whiskey once a day. the baptist could not decide whether to follow his conscience, or the doctors orders. the baptist came up with a conclusion. he said to his wife, there is a punch bowl over there. if unbeknownst to me you could slip a little bit of that whiskey into the punch, then i could drink it in good conscience and all would be well. well, says lincoln, if, somehow,
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mr. davies could slip out of the country unbeknownst to me, that 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 century, through the 19th century. the president and presidency were not at the center 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 that executive who would execute the will of congress. most presidents of the 19th century followed that model. there is only a couple of 19th century presidents that people remember, andrew jackson, abraham lincoln, maybe thomas jefferson if you like him, james polk has his fan club.
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for the most part, presidents in the 19th century are and memorable by design. things changed in the 20th century when, and because, the united states, for the first time, as a full-time foreign policy. i've written about 19th century presidents, and when i read about the presidency, i had this idea about dwight eisenhower. there has got to be a lot on foreign policy. when i was writing about andrew jackson and ulysses grant a said there needs to be a chapter on foreign policy. there is not that much foreign policy. the united states now has a full-time foreign policy, and then the president must take charge of the armed forces and is the de facto diplomat -in-chief full relations with foreign countries. it's in the 20th century that the presidency takes center
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stage in american politics, where it remains. so the presidency rewarded people who had these big personalities, the kind of people who would arrest your attention when you walked into a room. the first president to fit the mold and set the model was theodore roosevelt. roosevelt was someone who really did take up all the air in the room when he came in. his daughter, alice, who had some of this in herself and knew her father well, said if you want to understand my father, remember, he has to be the bride every waiting in the corpse at every funeral. this is theodore roosevelt. roosevelt could not appreciate jokes told at his expense. roosevelt himself didn't tell jokes, but most presidents
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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 theodore roosevelt considered his most important accomplishment is president to be getting the panama canal under construction. this was his contribution to world history, he said. to get it going, roosevelt had to foment a revolution in panama, to break panama free of columbia. under international law, or even ordinary codes of ethics, it was highly problematic. roosevelt convened a cabinet session to basically convince everybody in the cabinet that he had done the right thing. after he gave this long explanation as to why it had to be done, is attorney general stood up and said mister
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president, really? you should not let such a great accomplishment as this be tainted by any with of legality. roosevelt didn't laugh. the other members of the cabinet did. but i have to give roosevelt credit. roosevelt was one of the first presidents to be the target of other peoples humor in a particular form, editorial cartoons. editorial cartoons had a field day with roosevelt because he had features that were easily caricature. he had the glasses, the mustache. he was always just full of himself. and there were various cartoonists who would skewer roosevelt, and roosevelt, either to his credit, or maybe to his shrewdness, would respond by writing a letter to the cartoonist and say, i got a
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great laugh out of this, which he didn't. and i liked it so much, could use and media regional? no one ever knew 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 of all of, and the biggest evolution of the presidency as it relates to the question of humor and how presidents portray themselves as the development of a modern mass media. in fact, roosevelt in the editorial cartoons, the reason they were so popular and so effective was roosevelt was the first president in the age of the modern mass newspaper, the penny press, technological development in the printing industry that made it possible for newspapers to be printed and sold for a penny. newspapers in the middle of the 19th century war expensive
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magazines. ordinary people did not read newspapers. you needed a certain threshold of income. by the beginning of the 20th century, everyone could read newspapers, and this contributes to the rise of the president as the center of american politics. reporters, with great difficulty, can tell stories about a large group like congress. but it's only with great difficulty. it's tempting for reporters to tell stories about a single individual. if you have a charismatic, arresting individual like roosevelt, then it's easier to tell stories. as the technology changes, the system select for those characteristics. has an aside, one of the principles that i gradually inferred from the presidency is, for better or worse, and this applies to whether you like the president or not, we get the presidents we deserve.
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i say this quite literally, because we chose them. maybe you didn't choose this particular president, that particular president, but that's the best method anyone has come up with force electing a president. it falls into a category that didn't exist and no one would have invented today. that's where we are. once these expectations developed for president, presidents adapt themselves to them and become the kind of candidates who can live up to the expectations. harry truman was someone who never would have been a president if the only way to the white house was through the front door. harry truman was one of several presidents who became president by virtue, as a consequence of the death of his predecessor. when reporters, when harry
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truman became president, he told reporters, i will be as straight talking as i ever wise before i became president. harry truman was a very unlikely president. he was a creature of one of the last urban political machines, the pendergrass machine in kansas city. he was primarily known as a political hack, but he was loyal to franklin roosevelt. and roosevelt needed a new vice presidential running mate in 1944. here is a reminder. in observing this story, i'm reminded how much things changed over time and what we expect of the president and how presidents and running mates are chosen. 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 quail, without telling
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anyone else this is my choice. that was not the case for most of american history. for most of american history, the president was told, this will be your running mate, because the leaders of the party had the interests of the party at heart. and they needed to balance the ticket geographically and by age and by various other things. the democrats told roosevelt in 1944, you've got to get rid of your current vice president, henry wallace. it was clear that franklin roosevelt was not in good health. there is a real concern among conservative democrats that roosevelt would die in office and leave henry wallace, the last of the hard-core new dealers, as president. they threatened to mutiny at the 1944 convention. roosevelt says ok. get the guy from kansas city. he had hardly met harry truman, but he became president. truman says he will be a straight talking guy. he did hold press conferences. this is actually another
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important part of the story. through the truman era, presidential press conferences, as they were called, were off the record events. they were for the background. the president could be quoted only with his explicit permission. so when harry truman held press conferences, he would say something or other and reporters would have to say can we quote you on that. nowadays, we live in the age of other transparency. if a president says something inadvertently, it's considered fair game. truman discovered there were limits on his candor. when he was thinking aloud, saying in the middle of the korean war, maybe we will use nuclear weapons, and they asked if they could quote him, it makes the headlines and the world, suddenly there is alarm for nuclear war. truman doesn't have that much in the way of quotable jokes. i will share a story with you. this is truman once he got out
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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 there in the 19 fifties and he recalled visiting the truman library. the second of the presidential libraries after the franklin roosevelt library. and so he goes to a school, he takes a field trip to the truman library. and my friend gray, he's a third grader. and they're all tripping out of the bus to go into the library and who should they see? but former president harry truman who lived adjust several blocks from the library, had an office in the lab run every morning he'd get up and he'd walk to the library. and he would talk with the people on the way, he did and he would talk to people. so he started chatting up this group of third graders. i said hello kitties. so when you know about history?
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and what do you know about politics? truman, the last president not to have a college degree, but he prodded himself on the knowledge because he relative so he was quitting the case. he loved to show off how much she knew to demonstrate that he knew more than a third grader. so my friend greg still just shakes his head puzzled with this. so greg says, the president stopped and he said ok kids, i've got a question for you. now you probably know that both the house of representatives and the senate have various committees and they deal with issues and in each of the houses, there is a committee that deals with our relations with other countries. now, 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
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committee on foreign relations? and greg and the third graders, they have no idea what to say. and truman says, it's because senators are too old to have affairs! >> anyway, so, i looked for good jokes told by white eisenhower. dwight eisenhower was a pretty straight edge guy. and the best i could come up with is eisenhower's definition of an atheist. eisenhower's definition of an atheist? is he says, it's somebody who goes to a football game where noted game plays smo and he doesn't care who wins. but i'm running out of time, so i'm going to tell you, i will tell yorba linda johnson, i've also got a couple in -- i'll tell you about lyndon
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johnson. and this is one, it's not all clear that lyndon johnson had much of a sense of humor. so stories we're told about lyndon johnson, rather than stories told by lyndon johnson. but here is one that does capture the essence of lyndon johnson. and it's told of that 1960 democratic campaign for the nomination for president. and lynda johnson throws his hat around and the other two principal candidates -- as senator from missouri, and john kennedy. or junior senator from massachusetts. and the three men are sitting in the green room, ahead -- about to have a debate. they're sitting in agreement, one of the green is called green rooms, i don't know. but not one of them has been getting, but nonetheless, they're sitting there. and they're making small talk. and kennedy says, stewart,
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lyndon, 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 are 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 simon -- central casting of what we want. this toll, square jawed guy with this great main white here and he looks at a much younger kennedy and he looks at johnson and said, jack, i don't know what to tell you. because you see, i had a dream
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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, he 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 asked them, how many have you have been to the lyndon johnson library, which is there, and any of you by any chance i've been to the lyndon johnson library? it's unusual on among the presidential libraries by granting you before you go in, there is a life sized statue of lyndon johnson. and i invite my students to do this, especially those who
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think they have ideas of a career in politics. one of the ways to determine, i think, whether you might be good at a careers 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 want to be an engineer, think about a lawyer or doctor, see what they do on a daily basis. so i tell the students who think maybe they want to go into politics, want to be president, 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 size. and some of you will have a mental image of lyndon johnson. but he had an unusually large head. and he had really big years. and by this time, he had jowls. and when johnson would get sort of invested in something he was saying, he would often shake his head, in this case he did
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shake his head. those figures would flap a little bit and their travels would and the waves were on the jowls and 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 a either one of you on the shoulder. i'm going to stop there. and she f 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 or in the back. >> why do i think of saturday
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night live? okay, that's a really hard question to answer in any way that will get general ascent. so a lot of it depends on how you might you dislike the president. because saturday night live, which started airing during the presidency of gerald ford. and gerald ford was the first victim of satellite loans. and saturday night live really did change the context for presidential humor because it was the first regularly scheduled satire spoof on presidents. and in a certain sense, it was an equal opportunity caricaturist and satirist. so it really didn't matter what the politics of the president were. the cast on saturday night live, after whoever it might happen to be in the white house,
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because 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, gerald ford was quite unfairly lampooned but in fact lampoons are always unfair. they're great exaggerations but in ford's case, it was entirely mischaracterization. so teddy chase was the one, he's part of the original cast of saturday night live and he used to do the stumble down the steps of air force one and you know pull the tablecloth off the table and do all this clumsy stuff. giving out the impression that gerald ford was the stumble bomb. 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 food enough
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to realize, it would've been a waste of time. so he basically rained 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 come back. now, again, this falls in the category of, you might need this punchline explained. but i'm going to go with it anyway. so, ceviche's has been and lampooning, gerald ford for some while. and the two of them meet on some particular location. and he sort of wants to let ford know that this is all in good fun and so he says, gerald ford you are really actually a very good president. and ford, without missing a beat says, and you ceviche sorry very funny -- but i will tell you, for my
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money, the best presidential saturday night live connection is one that goes full circle with dana carr v. and george h. w. bush. so dana carved became famous for his characterization of bush. and bushes sometime sort of telegraphic style of speech. and while bush was president, he would smile and me, and that's pretty funny. so after he left the white house, he no longer had to do that. but george h. w. bush, i had the honor of the pleasure to encounter him a few times. i used to teach a texas a&m at the george bush school of public service. and 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
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sense of humor and this capacity for humor that he does not long after the left the white house, at about the time that his presidential library was opening in school was opening at texas a&m, he gave a closed to war address to students at texas. closed-door in the sense that the press was not allowed. and one of the things that president often have a hard time with and george w. h. bush really had this problem. when the press was around, he sort of hack it presidential so he often came across as -- lyndon johnson had the same problem. and but once he knew there were no cameras, he could just sort of let himself go. and he did, and imitation of dana carve the imitating himself and i have to tell you, this audience of students, these were undergraduates and they had no particular opinion of george bush, one where the other. but they were almost literally
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rolling in the eyes. and finally, barbara bush had to pull out the hook and say, get him out of here. he's not a comedian. so, 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, i'm assuming it's a lack of humor that's similar characteristics, so can you expand on that a little bit? >> yeah, so one of the tracking 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've said before president trump was elected of course, i would've said a lot of things i, have very different expectations about changes in the presidency and i sort of thought -- that these changes were purse -- and i had to change a lot of that. but every president really from
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about, will definitely from john kennedy or you could say even earlier than that had to at least fake a sense of humor. and sometimes in manchester laughing at the jokes people told about you. sometimes it would be telling jokes yourself. and so, presidents would sort of do this thing and i assumed and it just sort of seems -- it 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 and often eight plays into this stereotype, however false this there were ten might be and in one of his last speeches before national correspondence, who was president for a long time, they would give their journey carson, jay lam allow sort of in. and obama in this case, he
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showed before and after picture of him so here he is as president, he's got a lot of great hair and here he is before he becomes president. and he says, oh yeah, those days when i was the young muslim socialist. but trump definitely has taken a different route to the white house. i wasn't so surprised at the different route to the white house, because he was the ultimate of the anti establishment candidates. he was a centrally playing into peoples anger, peoples anger at the establishment. and trump liked to liken himself to andrew jackson as the antiestablishment candidate. i think there is less similarity between the individuals trump and jackson then there is in the people who voted for them. in both cases, it was a
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rejection of the entrenched belief that the people who voted for andrew jackson against john quincy adams were very much of the same mindset as the people who voted for trump. hillary clinton was clearly the candidate of the establishment and trump was the outsider. the idea of mobilizing the diss satisfaction and anger as part of the campaign, i didn't find surprising. i was surprised that it worked as well as it did. but then i was surprised, and up until now there has not been, an effort to broaden the base of people who chose him. president trump, i don't know if this is a deliberate decision or just that he operates on gut instinct, he seems to be content who with appealing to his base and not
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really trying much to broaden the base. and he holds rallies, political rallies. this is something no sitting president did, in fact, even before they were elected, few presidents held these kinds of rallies. the idea of holding rallies after you've been elected is something brand new. the point of the rallies seems to be to keep stoking dissatisfaction with the status quo. ronald reagan did it to a certain degree, even after four years as president. reagan tried to run as the antiestablishment candidate, and if you could pull it off, it's great, but after you've been at the center of the establishment, it's more impressive. i don't know if it's a good model. trump has been able to accomplish what he's accomplished with no observable sense of humor. i don't know if he is a funny guy and tells jokes with family,
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but he seems to make little no effort to do it as president. is this something new or an aberration? i asked questions about the meaning of the trump presidency fairly often. my answer is to take the historians dogs and say it's too early to tell. as i like to say, historians can really run with that a long way. [laughs] edward given who wrote a six volume history of the decline and fall of the roman empire, published in the late 1700s, described events that had happened in years before. he was once asked what's the lasting significance of rome. do you know what he said? too soon to tell. but i can give you a date, a precise date on which it will no longer be too soon to tell.
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that is election day 2020. the reason i say this is that presidents who make a lasting mark on the american political system, who are elevated into the ranks of really important presidents, our exclusively those presidents who get reelected. the presidents for whom voters have a chance to vote on their performance. presidents get elected the first time on the promise. promise is one thing. there can be a persuasive promised, but it doesn't always pay off. maybe you don't deliver on your promises or you change your mind or something. i'm not saying people get elected on the promise, but you can get elected and not follow through. you get reelected on the performance. any president, and they are all hymns until now, any president
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who puts himself up for reelection is asking for, in the british context, a vote of confidence. if voters reelect you, by however small a margin, even if the second go around in 2020 should be with a minority of the popular vote, we got this set of rules. the american people liked what you did. does it mean they liked what you did and an absolute sense? no. they only like you better than the person you are running against. that's the standard and every election. no one gets to run against nothing. you run against someone else. often votes are negative votes. we don't like the other scoundrel worse than this idiot. nonetheless, if trump should get a second term, then pretty much all of the changes that he
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has announced, and the changes to american foreign policy, to american domestic policy, those will have received the ratification of voters. people like me will have to say something new and potentially permanent is going on. if, for whatever reason, he does not get a second term, if he is defeated in the general election, challenged in the primary and loses, should he resign or be impeached, if he doesn't get a second term, then it will be entirely possible to say, okay, this was a onetime thing, and it represents the state of mind of voters at this particular moment. whether it has to do with humor, attitudes, and a number of things, presidents are less important for what they are than for what they represent, and one of the things they most represent is they are barometers of political culture.
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we get the presidents we deserve, and if voters say we like this new dispensation and it goes on, then there will have been an effective change of mind in the american political culture and the american electorate. that's something that will be of lasting importance. if you asked me in december 2020, i would no longer be able to say too soon to tell. maybe let's make it, april 2021? may? thank you very much. you have been a wonderful audience.
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fiona dean's holler in, and cartoonist pat baggily, talk about the life and work, of harper's weekly political cartoonist, thomas nast. they talk about the symbols he popularized, like the democratic stomping donkey, santa claus, and the republican debate elephant. the massachusetts historical event hosted this event and provided the video. >> >> the program tonight is very much directly related to our online exhibition and i hope you will all check out and if you've not done so already it's a great show and incredibly relevant these days. this was planned to be a physal


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