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tv   The Presidency Humor in the White House  CSPAN  May 6, 2022 8:57am-10:07am EDT

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>> there were two presidents
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who served before the white house was the official residence of the president. so, if i wanted to say, well the presidency humor, humor in the white house didn't quite do it. then, i thought about it some more, and actually, it does work. because, neither of the first two presidents had a sense of humor. so, it gets me out of that problem. but, i am going to follow the lead of, perhaps the most successful humourist in the white house. it might not be the person that you are thinking of. by doing what he always, did or
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in most cases when he mostly did at the beginning of the top, he started with a joke. now again, some of you will have heard this joke, but please, pretend you haven't heard it before and laugh at the appropriate time. so, this is a joke, and this is a key to part of my story, that ronald reagan used to tell. and at the key is, as you will see, ronald reagan was effectively telling this story on himself. it related to a time in his career when he didn't know, sort of, 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 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, his
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film career and, in his 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 the great behemoth of the american economy. , and reagan was there paid spokesman, and he was a host, a television host for the ge theater, and the ge theater was, well, it was an experiment in a television. this is in the 1950s. and, nobody knows quite what to do with tv. and so, they think, well, what you do with a television camera, is your film plays. and then, people just watch plays on tv. so, reagan was the host. he wasn't a star. he was in a couple of these, but he mostly just 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
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electric. and, the glories and wonders, and conveniences of electricity, better living through electricity. this was new. and, he would find himself because, reagan in that phase of his life was afraid to fly. and, he had written into his contract that he would not fly. so, he traveled by train across the country. and, he would go through small towns. and very often, he would fight himself addressing that local motor company. he used to call these other people the circuit. and, he would find himself in these small towns, where people didn't know who he was because he wasn't famous. he was never, it sort, of an ablest actor. he was sort of a b list actor. and jack warner, his boss at warner brothers said, when he heard that reagan was running for governor of california in the 1960s, he said, no, no, jimmy stewart had reagan for our best friend. that was the kind of roles he played. so anyway, he is this relative not entity, and he is going to
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these rather obscure talents and giving these, sort of, standard talks. so, the story that reagan told went like this. he is about to give a talk and some small town in the midwest. and, he doesn't know the people he is going to be speaking to. it's been lined up by his publicity agent. so, he is going to address this group. and one of the locals, the program director of whatever club it was, is it going to introduce reagan. but the thing is that the program director isn't familiar with ronald reagan, and he simply sees the printed name, ronald reagan on the program. and, he is supposed to introduce him like you know something about him. but the problem is, that he doesn't know how it that last name reagan is supposed to be pronounced. it could be reagan. it could be reagan. people of irish background
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pronounce it both ways. so, this man is in a quandary. now, this is back in the 1950s. you know, today, you could just go on youtube, and somebody would be introducing him, and you would see how it's pronounced. now, you couldn't do that then. so this guy, he is pretty conscientious. he wants to get it right. he doesn't want to embarrass his guest. he doesn't want to embarrass his group. so, he is trying to figure out how he is going to resolve this problem, how he will discover how the name is pronounced. so, he is deep in thought on the morning before the top, and it's a small town. he is walking around, walking around like this. going into the neighborhood, just. and while he is walking, he encounters one of his neighbors. the neighbor is out walking his dog. and in fact, so, this guy, actually, he doesn't notice the neighbor. he actually trips over the dock. and the neighbor says, well joe, boy, you really look like you are worried. what's going on? and joe starts to say, well, he explains the deal. he is starting to say -- so, he reaches into his pocket, and he pulls out the program. and he says, do you know this
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guy? have you ever heard of the sky? how do i pronounce's name? and, he looks at it -- oh, it is ronald reagan. that used to be an actor. and joe says, so, you are sure that it reagan? yeah, yeah. it's reagan you say reagan, he will be fine. well thanks, you've lifted a huge load off my shoulder. and, he starts walking back, and he repeats himself. reagan, reagan, reagan. and as he's walking back, he trips over the dog. he looks down says, that's acute dog. what kind of dog visit? a bagel. [laughs] so, this is ronald reagan's approach, and he had characterized sort of a large part of where i am going to be going with my top. because, by the time reagan was president, humor was considered a necessary part of the political arsenal of a
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president, of a candidate. and this because, well, i told you this story, and no one would say it's an enormously clever story, but just enough to get a hot a little bit. recognizes recognizes from those years on rubber chicken circuit, that if this an audience that doesn't know you, if there's an audience that might be a little skeptical about the messages you are conveying, if you can get them to laugh, it loses them up. it makes them feel that you are a real person, and not simply this flak for ge. and, it worked for reagan and ge. it worked for reagan as governor, for reagan as president of the united states. and, it represented something of a combination of a trend that had been going on for a long period of time. so, i am going to cover some of that trend. now, while i was -- after i said with the topic was going to be tonight, i sort of got you thinking about it a little bit.
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more and, i haven't to be teaching as of, well, this january, so just last month, of course. i teach this course every other year. it's a course on the history of the presidency. and, it's standard for me to begin 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, underneath, the one word explained. and so, this is the theme of the course, this is what the students have to do on a final exam. how did we get from george washington to george w. bush? how do we get from washington to barack obama? how do we get from george washington to donald trump? now, one of the striking things is that, if you go from george
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washington two most presidents before the current president, you see a, kind of, when your progression. now, some people would think that it's a decline, that the curve slips down. in fact, this question -- this comparison between the first president and the current president goes all the way back to the second president. presidents always look better in the rearview mirror then they do when they are right front and center. part of this is, that we tend to, i don't know, we tend to forget the failures, and remember the successes. that's part of it. the other thing is, that presidents are usually pretty talented people. and so, they usually have a lot of positive things that can be said about them. but while they are 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,
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that incentive is largely gone. this is why certain presidents fool themselves into thinking, you know, i could've run for a third term. dwight eisenhower, dwight eisenhower was more popular by pulling at the end of his presidency then he was at the beginning of his presidency. and, he used to think, boy, i could've gone a third term. bill clinton, bill clinton was more popular in the year 2000 then he was in the year 1993. he used to think that, okay, if he could've run for a third term, he would've wanted. that 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. 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 all door. so, this question of, sort of,
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popularity, and how presidents look better in the rearview mirror is partly due to this argument of nobody sniping at them anymore. once they are brought to office, everybody is. you learn the best about them. but, perhaps the clearest statement, the clearest assortment of presidential decline was made by henry adams, who was an observer of presidents from the -- well, heat was the grandson of john adams. so, he was the great grandson of john adams and the grandson of john quincy adams. the adams family was in this state of political decline, where there were two atoms presidents in their background, but henry adams could make even a start in politics. but, henry adams became a very distinguished historian, and when he was writing in the 18 60s, 18 60s, early 1870s, when you look he's grant was president, and this was just ten years after the republican --
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the introduction of the theory of evolution. and, adams take on this was that anybody who look at the progression from george washington to ulysses grant understands that evolution is -- it utterly refutes the theory. anyway, but i am going to start off with. so, i was going to say that -- in most cases, it looks as though there is this linear line, this line that maybe you think it goes down. maybe, you think it goes up. but, george washington, it's hard to fault. but, there's a striking thing, at least. i will propose this to you, and you can decide whether you agree with this or not. there is one sense, one sense at least, in which donald trump is positively, and this is an additive that i haven't heard, applied to donald trump, that donald trump is positively washingtonian. he is very much like the father of our country. and, do you know what?
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can you guess what i'm going to say? it's that particular characteristic. okay, that's not too bad. all right. well, okay. so, i hear it in the front, but i will not advertise it just yet. you all know the story gcse. it's part of american historical roar 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 said, you know, who chopped down the cherry tree? he, said i cannot tell a lie. i chopped down with my acts, and so on. so, we have this impression that george washington couldn't tell a lie. i don't actually think that's true. i read enough of washington's diaries and letters to know that he found the truth. but, whether or not george washington couldn't tell a lie, he could not tell a joke. he couldn't tell a joke, or maybe, it's just that he wouldn't telegenic.
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nor, would he laugh at jokes. and, this, in part, because he is 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, principles of life for a young man. there's something like 110 of them. and one of them said, laugh seldom, and never in distinguished company. he wrote this down. and, this was words that he came to live by. now, i really don't know that in his private life, george washington, no, i don't think he told jokes. he might've laughter jokes, but in his public life, he certainly did not. people would try to warm him up. there was a story that is told on good authority about george washington at the constitutional convention. this is before his president. but, he's actually president of
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the convention. and, he is this austere figure. he is the commander of the army. he is the one who won the revolutionary war, and therefore, the independence for the united states. and, he is presiding over the constitutional convention. 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 in debates. and, you make him a president, the presiding officer, and it gives him an excuse not to. but, some of the other members of the convention, one in particular, governor morris, who was -- he lived different times in new york and pennsylvania. he was a delegate to the convention from pennsylvania. , and he was very much a pale fellow, well that type. and, he walked on a wooden leg, and the story that was sometimes told about him -- he liked to all the tulsa story. he had lost his leg in the
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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 got amputated. anyway, governor morris was one who wanted this convention to be, well, not quite as somber as it seems to be. so, he made a bet with some of his friends there, including alexander hamilton. alexander hamilton led the other side. and, hamilton knew washington better than morris did. so, he made this bet that he could actually loosen up george washington. and, so hamilton said, we have a. betty want the wager to be? it will be the finest dinner in philadelphia for a dozen of each of our friends. so if i win, then you treat us. if you win, i treat you. so, he goes up to george
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washington, and this is a break in the gathering. and, he puts -- he slaps george washington on the shoulder, puts his arm around him. says george, how are you doing? glad to see you. and, the way governor morris tells the story -- he says, at that moment, general washington at that moment general washington fixed me with an icy glare. and he took my hand, and lifted it off of his shoulder, and fix me 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. that was the kind of person americans expected as their president. that is the kind of person americans wanted as their president in the early days of the republic. and what i call the agustin age
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of the presidency. it runs through george washington up through john quincy adams. before the united states became a democracy. a system in which ordinary people actually exercise political power. ordinary people did not elect wore george washington. ordinary people did not even elect the electors who george george washington. according to the constitution, and they are copies they're giving away out there, they are reading that each state shall elect electors. it does not say how. they get to choose, the legislative states get to choose how the electors are chosen. until as late as the 18 20s most state legislatures chose the electors, not voters and 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. that is why washington could get away with giving that reaction to governor morris.
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because, it really served his purposes to be this one who held himself apart from everybody else. because that is what americans wanted. and, the idea that the presidency, when he became president. the presidency was a serious undertaking. the idea that your president should have a sense of humor, laugh, 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 are really hard-pressed so to find a sense of humor with anybody in the white house telling jokes. really before andrew jackson, who is elected in 1828. even with andrew jackson it is andrew jackson. i took up this subject, understanding that conveying
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jokes or humor from the past to the present is a difficult undertaking call. takes change, maybe i've heard the phone saying. writing about music is like dancing about architecture. . it is like that to translate human from the past to the present. anything you can try, you look like a learned audience. and sure jackson is the first popularly elected president, it is who makes the presidency the peoples office. and, his election has members of the establishment. members of the adams family, and supporters of all of those presidents who had come from the elites and the american virus chakras a.
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he a first parliamentary president, especially in places like new england and around harvard college. the idea that this uncouth militarist should be president of the united states was something they had a very hard time getting their heads around. and john quincy adams, who is 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 a kind of person the presidency attracts, there is no hope. while there were people in new england, there are people at harvard who took a different view. this is the way the world is going, we have to make our peace with it. so, the board of trustees of harvard decided that in the interests of holding out an olive branch they were going to offer to president jackson and
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honorary harvard degree. john quincy adams almost had a fifth, he wrote to the president of harvard saying you cannot do this, it will sell the reputation of my alma mater. but, the occasion went forward, there were the centers on the faculty. they decided, okay, we cannot stop this, we will show jackson up. in those days it was not unheard of for academics to deliver their papers in latin. their traditional language of intellectuals and the academy. and, so without telling the president who was basically with the reputation on the line. there was a commencement and several occasions. the speaker before jackson. they gave their speeches in
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latin, with the belief that this would really follow next jackson. he obviously would not know what was happening, they would be so embarrassed that he would be humiliated and show up. now, as i say, with explaining these historical stories. context is necessary. . jackson was holding the union together by force. jackson was asserting, know the union was central and the union last hold. this was the background. jackson was a first of presidents, this became a common thing over the years for presidents and other distinguished members of the president, secretaries of state, the marshall plan was announced in a harvard commencement address. jackson is going to give this pronouncement on the current state. he is also going to deal with a
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stepped on the harvard faculty to embarrass him. jackson stands up, and he speaks in latin. ♪ ♪ ♪ enough of unilateral to get the joke. so, anyway that is the best i have on a joke from jackson. and i have to confess, i have to confess that that story is probably somewhat exaggerated. it is in the nature, jackson was not a particularly funny guy but one of the things that you see in the evolution of the presidency is not always that the presidents are they wants timely jokes or the stories, but the president becomes the object. sometimes the but of these stories and the jokes. in a way that was not true, it was considered with somebody like george washington to tell things like that. but, with jackson things are
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fair game. the office of the presidency evolves until somebody like the next ordinary person to get elected president. that is abraham lincoln, and abraham lincoln is perhaps the most famous humourist in the white house. lincoln was known for and this is key, there is a connection between lincoln and ronald reagan. lincoln told stories, he told jokes. but, he realized that in politics that you tell jokes jokes often have a target. the person is being joked about is being teased, that in politics and democratic politics we are asking for votes. the only safe target of a joke is you yourself.
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if you target anybody else. you are going to eliminate them and your friends, and people who feel an affinity towards them. if you tell a joke, the first good thing that happens is you avoid that. the second thing is you make people think he does not have a good ego, he as jokes about himself. it humanizes is presidents for people. we see the beginning of a trend that would set an and fall in the 20th century. where, by the 20th century, you have to figure out who is going to win any given election. you can look at unemployment rates and other things, but the most reliable single indicator is what you can generically call a likability and that's. which of the candidates would you rather sit down and have a beer with? if there is a clear difference between the two candidates,
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that candidate is going to win. we see this in the first time in lincoln, really needs to make himself likable. he also had a certain wet, and not everybody is blessed with the kind of wit that can turn particular situations in a humorous direction. but, this is a story told about lincoln, lincoln has the punchline. you will see that before lincoln went into politics and after his sojourn in the politics. lawyers in -- there is not enough business in springfield himself. lawyers would start young and go until they were old, he had an acquaintance who is a relatively young man. there were acquaintances who are slow this day, this guy was having a trial, conducting a
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trial. he was one of the attorneys in the trial. so there is a recess, this guy is young and full of energy. hey considered himself something of an athlete. in fact, a wrestler, he got in a wrestling match there are in the lunch break with a towns person. they are wrestling and rolling around on the ground. this guy wraps his pants and so, the judge is back, the trial continues. he stands up before the court, and as he turns to address the jury it is very clear he has a big hole in the bottom of his pants. and so, the other members of the bar who are sitting around, unbeknownst to the guy they decide to take up a contribution to buy him a new pair of pants. they silently send this subscription shape around the courtroom. and it comes to lincoln and
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lincoln was always rather thrifty with his money. he did not want to give any money away for causes the did not require it. he declined to contribute, he wrote instead, i cannot contribute to the and in view. [laughs] so, when lincoln introduce himself to audiences, in one of his coming out speeches for the new republican party. he began his life as a whip but it declined in early in his career. it was replaced by the republicans. he held his first contention in bloomington, illinois. he was well-known, but he needed to introduce himself to the group there. he began by saying that when he was coming, he was riding a horse to the convention he encountered a woman on the road who is coming the other way. they woman stops him, and said
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sir i believe you are the ugliest man i have ever seen. lincoln says, i responded, what could i say. i said, well this is the way god made me. sorry, i do not have an excuse for that. she says, well okay, the least you could do is have stayed home. on another occasion lincoln lampooned his appearance, when whether his political opponents described him as two faced. lincoln said, to face to have 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 tumor to get him through the dark days of the civil war. the members of lincoln's cabinet very often groaned when lincoln would start to tell a story.
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they knew these stories would go on, and on. there was business to be done. sometimes the stories had a point or 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 wish that the davis problem with simply go away. he was all in favor of a very speedy and lenient reconstruction. he had to have some kind of policy about what to do with confederate leaders. he was asked, mister president what should we do? lincoln says, it brings me in mind of this baptist they used to know. . this baptist was quite opposed to the use of any alcoholic beverages. he would not go to nearly stuff. but, he came down with a fever. and his doctor prescribed a certain dram of whiskey, once a day.
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the baptist could not decide whether to follow his conscience or the doctors orders. the baptist finally concluded, he came up with a solution. he told his wife, he said there is a punchbowl over there, and if, unbeknownst to me, you could slip a little bit of that whiskey into the plunge then i could drink it in good conscience and all would be well. well, so lincoln, if somehow mr. davies could slip out of the country, unbeknownst to me, let much of our problem would go away. the institution of the presidency changed dramatically at the end of the 19th century. in the beginning of the 20th century. through the 19th century the president and the presidency were not at the center of american political life. they were not expected to be by
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the constitution. congress is supposed to be, or was supposed to be a leading institution. the president is simply the chief executive. it would execute the rule of congress. most presidents of the 19th century followed that mall. there are only a couple of 19 century presidents the people remember. andrew jackson, abraham lincoln, thomas jefferson if you like him, james polk has his flan club. for the most part, presidents of the 19th century are on memorable by design. but, things change in the 20th century when, and because, the united states for the first time has a full-time foreign policy. i have written about 19th century presidents, when i write about a presidency i sort of have this idea, because i started writing history in the 20th century about dwight eisenhower's presidency. i think there has to be a lot
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about foreign policy. when i was writing about andrew jackson or ulysses s grant, there has to be a chapter on foreign policy. but there is not really that much foreign policy, it is only in the 20th century when the united states becomes a world power. then the united states has a full-time foreign policy. and then the president has to take charge because he is commander in chief of the armed forces. he is the de facto diplomatic sharif for relations with foreign countries. it is in the 20th century that the presidency takes center stage in american policy, where remains. so, the presidency rewarded people who had these big personalities. the kind of people who would arrest your attention when you walk in the room. the first president to fit that mold, they want to set the model for the modern presidents was theodore roosevelt. theodore roosevelt was one who really did take up all of the air and the room when he came in. his daughter alice, who had some of this in herself and knew her father very well said, if you want to understand my
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father you have to remember that he has to be the bride every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. this is theodore roosevelt, the odd thing is, it maybe this is not so odd considering that personality but roosevelt could not appreciate jokes told at his expense. roosevelt himself did not tell jokes but most presidents eventually would get to the point where they would learn to laugh when people made jokes about them. that was the easiest way to deal with it, roosevelt had to train himself to do this. theodore roosevelt considered his most important accomplishment as president to be getting the panama canal under construction. this was his contribution to world history, but to get it going he basically had to make a revolution in panel to break
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it free of columbia. under international law or even normal clothes of ethics it was highly problematic. roosevelt convened a cabinet sent to basically convince everybody that he had done the right thing. after he gave this long testament his attorney general stood up and said, mister president, willie you should not let such a great accomplishment as the spectators by any amount of legality. roosevelt did not laugh, the other members of the cabinet did. but, i have to give roosevelt credit for this because roosevelt was one of the first presidents to be the target of other peoples humor in a particular form. editorial cartoons. cartoonists had a field day
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weather was about, he had features that were easily caricature. he had the mustache on the glasses, he was always full of himself. he said bully! and delighted! there were various cartoonists to its skewer was about, and roosevelt to his credit or sureness would respond by writing a letter to the cartoonist. the person who of the cartoon, and said oh i got a great laugh out of it. what she did not. he said i liked it so much, could you send me the original. [laughs] nobody ever knew what happened the originals, but he understood that he needed to do this, even though it came hard. the presidency, the presidency would continue to evolve and the biggest evolution of the presidency as a relates to this question of humor, and how presidents portray themselves. that is the development of the modern mass media.
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in fact, roosevelt and his editorial cartoons, the reason they were so popular and effective was that roosevelt was the first person in the age of the modern mass newspaper. technological developments in the printing industry made it possible for newspapers to be printed and sold for a penny. newspapers in the 19th century were expensive magazines, today. ordinary people did not read newspapers because you had to have a certain threshold of income. by the beginning of the 20th century everybody could read newspapers. there's also contributes to the rise of the president as the center of american politics. reporters can, with great difficulty, tell stories about a large group like congress. it is very tempting for reporters to tell their stories about a single individual. if you have a charismatic and
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arresting individual like roosevelt and it is easier to tell stories about them. as the expectations and the technology change the system select for those characteristics. as an aside, but it is not really an aside. one of the principles i studied from the presidency. for better or worse in this applies to whether you like the president or not, we get the presidents way deserve. i say this quite literally because we chose them. now, maybe you did not choose this particular president or that particular president but this is the best method anybody has come up with four selecting presidents. basically we can argue about the electoral college. it falls into the category that if it did not exist nobody would've meant it today. but if it does exist in this is where we are. one of these expectations developed for presidents. presidents of gap themselves to
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them and they become the kind of candidates who can live up to the expectations. harry truman, harry truman is somebody who never would have been president if the only way to light lighthouse was through the front door. harry truman was one of several presidents who became president by the virtue of his predecessor dire. when harry truman became president he told reporters, i am going to be as straight talking as our was before i became president. harry truman was a very unlikely president. a creature of one of the last urban political machines in kansas city. he was primarily known as a hack but he was loyal to franklin roosevelt and roosevelt needed a new vice presidential running mate to
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1934. here's a reminder, really serving the story i am reminded how much things have changed over time. in what we expect about presidents but also how the running mates are chosen. we live in a time where whoever gets the nomination of the party gets to choose, often without consulting anybody else. consider, sarah palin, or even dan quayle. without any telling anybody else, this is my choice. this was not the case for most of american history. for most of american history the presidents were told. the leader of the party had the interest of the party at heart. they needed to balance the ticket geographically, by age, and by various other things. the democrats told roosevelt in 1944 you have to get rid of your current vice president. it was clear that franklin roosevelt was not in good health. there was real concern,
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especially along conservative democrats that roosevelt would die in office and leave henry wallace, the last of the hard-core new dealers, as part of the united states. roosevelt says, all right, just get that guy from kansas city. he had hardly met harry truman about truman becomes president. truman becomes president, he says he is going to be a straight talking guy. he did hold press conferences, this is actually an important part of the story. through the truman area presidential press conferences, as they were called, were off the record of events. these were for background, the president could be quoted only with his explicit condition. 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? nowadays we live in this age of utter transparency, if a president even says something inadvertently it is considered fair game.
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chairman discovered there will limits on his candor, when he was thinking aloud saying in the middle of the korean war, maybe we will use nuclear weapons. and then, they said can we quote you on that? yes, that makes the headlines on the world. all of a sudden the world's alarm there is going to be a nuclear war. charlie does not 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 he could be freer with what he was saying. i have a very good friend who lives in austin and grew up in kansas city. he grew up in kansas city in the 1950s. he recalled visiting the truman library, the second of the presidential libraries, after the franklin roosevelt library. he goes to his school and takes a field trip to the fishermen library.
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my friend greg is a third grader, they are all tripping out of the bus to go into the library and who should they see? but former president harry truman, who lived several blocks from the library, had an office in the library. every morning he would get up and walk to the library. he did not have security in the way and so he would talk to the people. he started talking to this group a third graders, he's in hello, kids, what do you know about history? 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 glazing the kids, truman like to show off how much he knew about history. he was going to quiz the third graders and demonstrate that he knew more than a third grader. but what he said was this and my friend greg still shakes his head in puzzlement of this. the greg says, the president stopped, he said okay kids, i have a question for you. you probably know that both the
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house of representatives and the senate have various committees. they deal with issues, and in each of the houses there is a committee that deals with our relations with other countries. in the house of representatives it is called the committee on foreign affairs, in the senate it is called the committee on foreign relations. kids, do you know why the senate committee is called the committee on foreign relations? gradually others are graders have no idea what to say. truman says, it is because senators are too old to have affairs. [laughs] anyway. i locked for a good jokes told by dwight eisenhower. dwight eisenhower was a pretty straight ahead guy. the best i could come up with is eisenhower's definition of
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an atheist. do you know what eisenhower's definition of an atheist is? it is somebody who goes to a football game, where notre dame plays smu and does not care who wins. i am running out of time. so, i'm going to tell you, i have to tell you a story about lyndon johnson. i have a couple more reagan stories but i will tell you about lyndon johnson. this is one, it is not at all clear that lyndon b. johnson had a lot of the sense of humor. stories were told about lyndon johnson rather than being told by lyndon johnson. here is one that does capture the essence of lyndon johnson. it is told of the 1960 democratic campaign for the nomination for president. when johnson has found his hat in the ring, the other two principal candidates are stewart signing ten, a senator
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from missouri, and john kennedy. a junior senator from massachusetts. the three man are sitting in the grain room ahead of this debate. they are about to have a debate. they are sitting in the green room, why the grams are called the grain rooms i do not know. none of them agreeing. nonetheless, they are sitting there and making small. talk and kennedy says, stuart, 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?
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so, stuart signing ten looks at kennedy. signing tim, sort of the model of a senator. tall, square jaw guy with mane of white hair, and he looks at the much younger kennedy, and he looks at johnson and says 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 kept me on the shoulder. and he said, stu, 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 stuart symington looks at kennedy, looks at johnson. johnson looks at the other two.
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now, when i tell this story to my students in austin, where the johnson library is located, i asked them, how many of you have been to the lyndon johnson library, which is there? any of, you buy any, chance been to the linen johnston library? okay. it's a usual in presidential libraries by greeting. it before you go, in as a life sized 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, where 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 an engineer, follow -- if you think you want to be a doctor, see what they do on a daily basis. i tell these students, who say they want to go into politics. they want to be president. go over there. stand in front of that statue. look at lyndon johnson in the eye, and see how you measure up. one of the reasons i tell them this, is that the statue of
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johnson's very lifelike, and some of you will have a mental image of lyndon johnson, but he had this -- he had an unusually large head, and he had really big years. 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 it shake his hand. those big years would flap, and the jowls would kind, of the waves would go on the generals. 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. okay, i'm going to stop there. i'm going to stop there.
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and, see if there are any responses, any questions. and so, we will see where we go. i certainly don't want to overstate might welcome. questions, any reactions? yes, sir in the back. >> obviously, saturday night live -- [inaudible] >> i'll repeat it, go ahead. yeah. why do i think of saturday night live? >> [inaudible] >> okay, that's a really hard question to answer in any way that will get general assent. so, a lot of it depends on how much 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 saturday night live, and saturday night live really did change the context for presidential humor.
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because, it was the first regularly scheduled satire spoof on a 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 whenever whomever happened to be in the white house 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 presidents ability to roll with a joke. and, so gerald ford, gerald ford was quite unfairly lampooned. but in fact, lamps are always unfair. they are great exaggerations. in forbes case, it was an entirely mischaracterization. so, it's heavy chase was the one. he was part of the original
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cast of saturday night live. he used to do the stumble bound, the steps of air force one, put the tablecloth on the table, and do all this clumsy stuff. giving out the impression that gerald ford was stumble, clumsy. when in fact, he was one of the most graceful individual 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've been a waste of time. so, he basically grand and bore it, but there was one particular occasion, and 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 am going to go with it anyway. so, chevy chase has been lampooning gerald ford for some while. and, at the two of them meet on
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some particular occasion, and chevy chase, 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, chevy chase, are a very funny suburb. [laughs] 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 carville and george h. w. bush. so, dana carville became famous for his characterization of a bush. and, bush has a telegraphic style of speech. and, while bush was president, he would smile. yeah, that's funny. so, after he left the white house, he no longer had to do
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that, but george h. w. bush, he had the honor and the law pleasure to and counter him a few times. i used to teach at texas a&m at the george bush school of public service. he used to come to my class. 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 it was not long after he left the white house, at about the time that his presidential library was opening, and schools 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. and, one of the things that president often have a hard time with, and george h. w. bush really had this problem, when the press was around, he sort of had to act presidential. and, so he often came across as sort of -- lyndon johnson had the same
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problem. but, once he knew there were no reporters in the room, no cameras, he could just, sort of, let himself go. and, he did an imitation of dana carvey 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 way or the other. but, they were almost literally rolling in left. and finally, barbara bush had to say, get him out of here. he is 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, this president, and george washington, somebody -- lack of humor, similar characteristics. can you expand on that a little bit? >> yeah, so one of the striking things to me about president trump's his --
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watch allies, a lack of an observable sense of humor. and, not any attempt to fake it. i would've said -- 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 and the presidency, and i, sort of, thought that it was on rollback -able, that these changes were prominent. but, every president, really from about -- well, definitely from jon kennedy, or you could say to even earlier than that had to at least figure 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, president would sort of do this sort of thing. and, i assumed -- 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
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president did. and, presidents very often, barack obama, for example, i mean, often, it plays into the stereotype. however false the stereotype might be. in one of his last speeches before the national correspondent club, where presidents, for a long time, they would give their, sort of, there johnny carson, jay leno monologue sort of thing. and obama, in this case, he showed up before and after a picture of him. so, here he is as president. he's got a lot of gray hair. and, here he is before he becomes president. and he says, oh yeah, those days where i was a strapping young muslim socialist. [laughs] but, donald trump definitely took a different route to the white house. and, i wasn't quite surprised at the different route to the white house because he was the ultimate of the anti establishment candidate. and, he was essentially playing
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into peoples anger, peoples anger at the establishment. and, donald trump liked to liken himself to andrew jackson, as the anti establishment candidate. and president. i think that there is less similarities between the individuals, trump and jackson, then there is and the people who voted for them. in both cases, it was a rejection of this entrenched believe. and the people who voted for andrew jackson against john quincy adams were very much of the same mindset as the people who voted for donald trump against hillary clinton. hillary clinton was clearly the candidate of the establishment, and trump was the outsider. and so, the idea of, sort of, mobilizing that dissatisfaction, that anger, as part of the campaign, i didn't find surprising. i was surprised that it actually worked as well as it did. but, then i was surprised when
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there was -- and i would say, until now, they're still has not been any efforts to broaden the base of people who chose him. and, president trump has, i don't know if this is a deliberative gym, or if it just, he operates on gut instinct, law these same principles gone to the white house, so you can say is not worth anything. but, he seems to be content with appealing to his base, and not really trying much to broaden the base. and if that's what you are -- he holds rallies. he holds political rallies. this is something no president, no sitting president did. in fact, few presidents, even before they were elected -- someone hold kinds of rallies, but the idea of holding rallies after you've been elected is something brand-new. and the point of the rallies seem to be to keep 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
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as the anti establishment candidate. boy, if you could pull it off, it's great. but, it's hard to pull it off, after you've been at the center of the establishment as president. so, i don't know if this is a new -- president trump has been able to accomplish what he's accomplished with no observable sense of humor. now, again, i don't know if he is a funny guy, and it tells jokes to family or other people. but, he seems to make, at least so far, make little or no effort to do it as president. now, is this something new, or is this an aberration? i get asked questions about the meaning of the trump presidency fairly often, and my answer is to take the historians dog, and say that it's too early to tell. and as i like to say, historians can really run with that a long way. edward gibbon, who is six
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volume history of the line and fall of the roman empire. which is published in the late 1700s. it would describing advance that had happened 1000 years before. he was once asked, what is the lasting significance of rome? you know he said, it is too soon to tell. i can't give you a precise state on which it will no longer be too soon to tell. 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 they elevated into the ranks of very important president, are exclusively those presidents who get reelected. the presidents for whom voters have a chance to vote on their performance.
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presidents get elected the first time on the promise. promises one thing because you can be a persuasive promise or. it does not always payoff, maybe you did not deliver on your promises or change your mind or something. i am not going to say anybody can get elected on promise but you can get elected on promises and not follow through. you get reelected on the performance. any president who puts himself up for reelection, basically, is asking in the british context this would be a vote of confidence. if voters reelect you, i have a smaller margin, even if the second go around in 2020 should be was a minority of the popular vote, we have this set of rules. if under those rules you win, that says that the american people liked what you did. does it mean that they like what you did in an absolute
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sense? an ideal world? no, they only like you better than the person you are running against. but that is the standard in every election. nobody gets to run against nothing. you run against somebody else. often votes, or negative votes. we don't like that guy worse than we like this guy. nonetheless, if donald trump gets reelected and gets a second term, then pretty much 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. and so, then people like me will have to say, all right something new and potentially permanent is going on. if, for whatever reason he does not get a second turn. if he runs and is getting defeated and the general election. should he resign or be impeached and convicted. if he does not get a second turns and it will be entirely
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possible to say, okay, this was a onetime thing. it represents the state of mind of voters at this particular moment. because, for me whether it has to do with humor, whether it has to do with attitude or any other 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 that they are barometers of the political culture. as i said before, we get the presidents we deserve. if voters say we like this new dispensation and it goes on, then there will have been this effective change of mind in the american political culture and the american electorate. 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, maybe let's make it april of 2021. may, very good.
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thank you very much, you have been a wonderful audience. thank you all for coming. [applause] >> weekends on c-span two are an intellectual feast. every saturday, american history tv documents america story. and, on sunday's book tv brings you the latest of nonfiction books and authors. funding for c-span two comes from these television companies and more, including comcast. >> you think this is just a community center? no, it is way more than that. >> comcast is partnering with 1000 community centers. at least six presidents recorded conversations while in office. here, many of those conversations on c-span's new
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podcast. presidential recordings. >> season one focuses on the presidency of lyndon johnson, you will hear about the 1964 civil rights act, 1964 campaign, they march on salma, and the war in vietnam. not everyone knew they were being recorded. >> certainly johnson's secretaries knew because they were tasked with transcribing the conversations. they were the ones that made sure the conversations were taped. johnson would signal between an open office between his and their. >> jen. >> yes sir. >> i want to report of the number of people assigned to kennedy the day he died and the number of people he died and if mine are less i want them last quick. >> yes sir. >> and if i can go to the bathroom i won't go, i won't go anywhere. >> presidential recordings,
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find on the c-span now mobile app or wherever you get your podcasts. >> up next on the presidency, former secret service agents talk about protecting the forest family and the challenges they faced. included in the speakers's larry buendorf who prevented a 1975 assassination attempt on president gerald ford. the george w. bush presidential center is the host of this event. >> here at the busch center, of course, we have a wonderful relationship with our partners. it is so nice to have smu president dr. gerald turner and his wife dale with us here tonight. we are grateful to all of our board members who are in attendance. knowing our panelists who are here with this will be one of the engaged program that is both informative and highly entertaining. it is a rare treat to have the curtain puac


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