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tv   The Presidency Humor in the White House  CSPAN  June 3, 2022 3:07pm-4:17pm EDT

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and now historian h.w. brands
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talks about humor in the white house and the role it plays in politics. from george washington to donald trump, he considers how funny our chief executives have been, or not, and whether they have used humor to their advantage. this is just over an hour. >> we will be talking about humor in the white house. and 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 perhaps 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 the president. and so if i wanted to say the presidency and humor,
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humor in the white house didn't quite do it. but then i thought about it some 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. it 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 talk, 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. so this is a joke, and this is a key to part of my story that ronald reagan used to tell this joke. and the key is, as you see, is that ronald reagan was effectively telling this story on himself. it related to a time in his 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
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became a politician. but there was an interregnum, 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, his film career ended an 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 behemoth of the american economy. and reagan was their paid spokesman. and he was a host, a television host, for the g. e. theater. and the g. e. theater was, well, it was an experiment in television. this was in the 1950s. no one knows what to do with tv and they think we can do filmed plays, and people watch plays on tv. so, reagan was the host. he wasn't a star. he was in a couple of these,
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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 and conveniences of electricity. better living through electricity. this was what he would do. and you would find itself because reagan in that phase of his life was afraid to fly. and he had written into his contract that he would not fly. and so he traveled by train across the country. and he would go through the small towns, and very often he would find himself addressing the local rotary club or the elks or the chamber of commerce. and he used to call these other people [inaudible] the rubber chickens or get. and he would find himself in the small towns
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where people didn't know who he was because he wasn't famous. he was never, sort of, and a list actor. he was sort of the actor, as jack warner, his boss at warner brothers said, when he heard that reagan was running for president of the united states -- excuse me, here is running for the governor of california in the 1960s. is that, no, no, jimmy stewart for governor, record for best friend. [laughter] >> and that was the kind of faulty plate. so anyway, he's this relative known entity. and he's going to these rather obscure towns and giving these sort of standard talks. so the story that reagan told went like this. he is about to give a talk in some small town in the midwest, and he doesn't know that people, he's going to be speaking to, it's been lined up by his publicity agent. and so he's going to address this group. and one of the locals, the program director of whatever clip it was -- mccullough tlc -- is 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, our g a and on the program. and he's supposed to introduce them and act like he knows something
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about him. but the problem is that he doesn't know how the last name or eeg am is supposed to be pronounced. it could be reagan, it could be regan. and people of irish background pronounce it both ways so this man is in a quandary. no, this is back in the 1950s. you know today, you could just go on youtube and some would be introducing him and you will hear how it's pronounced. no, you can't do that. so this guy, and he's pretty conscientious. he wants to get it right. he doesn't want to embarrass his guest and he doesn't want to embarrass his group so he is trying to figure out how he is going to solve this problem and how he's going to discover how this name is pronounced. so
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he's deep in thought on the morning before the top. and it's a small town aunties walking around is, walking around like this, so one of [inaudible] and while he's walking, he encounters one of his neighbors. the neighbor is out walking his dog. and in fact so this guy actually doesn't encounter the neighbor and he actually trips over the dog and oh and the neighbor says, while joe, boy you really look like you're worried. what's going on? and joyce starts to say, well, he explains the deal. and he is starting to sandy sort of reaches in his pocket and he pulls out the program and he says, you know this guy? you ever heard of this guy? how do i pronounce his name? and he looks at it, oh, it's ronald reagan. yeah, he used to be an actor. and joe says, so your show is reagan? yeah, yeah, is
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record. you say reagan, you'll be fine. he says, oh boy, thanks. you've lifted a huge load off my top shoulders. and they start walking back and he repeats to himself, reagan, reagan,, reagan. and as he's walking back, he again trips over the dog. until it's down there and says, that's acute dog, what kind of top is it? >> a bagel. [laughter] so. this is, this is ronald reagan's approach. and it characterizes sort of the large part of where i'm going to be going with my talk because by the time reagan was president humor was considered a necessary part of the political arsenal of a president and also pretended it and this because well you know i told you this story no one would say it's an enormously clever story bridges enough to get a ha ha ha a little bit. reagan recognized from those years on the rubber chicken circuit that if there is an audience that does [inaudible] if there's an audience that might be a little bit skeptical about the message that you are conveying, if you can't get them to a laugh it loosens them up. it makes them feel that you are a real person and not
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simply this flak for ge. and it worked for reagan for ge, for reagan as governor, for reagan as president of the united states. and it records represented something of a culmination of a trend that had been going on for a long period of time. so i'm going to cover some of that trend. now, while i was -- after i told what the topic was going to be tonight, i sort of got to think about it a little bit more, and i happen to be teaching as of, well, this january, so just last month, a course that i -- i teach this course every other year. and it's a course on the history of the presidency. and it's the standard for me to begin the course with -- a put up on the 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,
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back to george w. bush. and so, our first president, our current president, and underneath, the one word, explain. and so this is the theme of the course, this is what the students actually 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 through barack obama? how did we get from george washington to donald trump? now, one of the striking things is that if you go from george washington to most presidents before the current president, you see a kind of linear progression. now, some people would think that it's a decline, that the curve looks down. in fact, this question of, 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 than they do when they're right front and center. part of this is that we tend to -- i don't know -- we sort of tend to forget the failures and remember the successes. that's part of it. the other thing is
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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 within their own party, have an incentive to tell you all the bad things about them. but once they leave office, that incentive is largely gone. this is why certain presidents fool themselves into thinking, you know, i could have run for a third term. dwight eisenhower was more popular by polling at the end of his presidency than he was at the beginning of his presidency. and he used to think, boy, i could have gotten a third term. bill clinton, bill clinton was more popular in the year 2000 than he was in the year 1993. he used to think that, okay, if he could have run for a third term, he would
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have won. they for 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 al gore. so, this question of sort of popularity and how presidents look better in the rearview mirror is partly due to this artifact of, nobody sniping at them any more, when whereas once they're in office, all everyone is, you learn all the bad things about them. but perhaps the clearest statement, the clearest assertion of presidential decline was made by henry adams, who was an observer of presidents from the -- wealthy was the grandson of john adams, so he was a great son of john adams and the grandson of john
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quincy adams. henry adams, he had brothers, and the adams family was in this state of political to decline where there were two atoms presidents in their background, but henry adams couldn't make even a start in politics. but henry adams became a very distinguished historian, and he was, when he was writing in the 18 60s, 18 60s and early 18 70s, when ulysses grant was president, and this was just ten years after the publication of charles darwin's on the origin of species, the introduction of the theory of evolution. and adams's take on this was that anybody who looks at the progression of the presidency from george washington to ulysses grant understands that evolution is a crock. [laughter] that it actually refutes the theory. anyway, but i am going to start off -- so, i was going to say that, so in most cases, it looks as though there's this linear line, there's this line that maybe you think it goes down, maybe you think it goes
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up, but george washington, is a tough act to follow. but there's a striking thing, at least, i'm going to propose this to you and you could decide whether you agree with this or not. and there is one sense, one sense at least, in which donald trump is positively -- and this is an adjective 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? can you guess what i'm going to say is that particular, that particular characteristic? six foot three, that's not too bad! all right! well, well, okay. so i hear it in the front, but i'm not going to advertise just yet. you all know the story -- well, i don't know if you all know this -- but it's part of an american historical lore that george washington, you know the story about george washington and the cherry tree and how he chopped down the cherry tree and his father said, you know, who chopped down the cherry tree? said, i cannot
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tell a lie, i chopped it down with my axe, 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've written off of washington's diary and letters to know that he fudged to the truth. but george washington, whether or not george washington couldn't tell a lie, he could not tell a joke. [laughter] or maybe it's just that he wouldn't laugh at jokes. this in part because he presented himself to the wall that is very sober minded, serious character. as a young man, he got a hold of this list of sort of maxims and principles of life for a young man. something like 110 of them. and one of them said, laugh seldom and never in distinguished company. he wrote
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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 -- now, i don't think he told jokes. he might have laughed at jokes. but in his public life, he certainly did not. and people would try to warm him up. there's a story that is told on good authority about george washington at the constitutional convention. this is before he's president. he's actually president of the convention. and he is this austere figure, he is the commander of the continental army, he is the one who won the revolutionary war, therefore 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 in debates. and you make him president, the presiding officer, and it gives him the excuse not to. but some of the other members of the
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convention, they, one in particular, gouverneur morris, who was a -- he had lived at 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 type. and he walked on a wooden leg. and the story that was sometimes told about him, he liked till the story, that he had lost his leg in the revolutionary war. it was a battle injury. the other story that was told about him is that he badly injured himself diving out of the bedroom window -- [laughter] -- of one of his lovers just at the moment that her husband was returning. and it was badly injured and a leg had to be agitated. morris was one who
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wanted this convention to be, well, not quite as much of a bummer as it seemed to be. so he made a bet with some of his friends there, including alexander hamilton [inaudible] -- and hamilton knew washington better than morris did. and so, he made this bet that he could actually loosen up george washington. and so hamilton said you to [inaudible] what you want to wager to be? it'll be the finest dinner in philadelphia for a dozen of each of our friends. so if i win and then you treat us and if you win that i treat you so he goes up to george washington and he puts his arm around his
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shoulder and says, george how are you doing? i'm glad to see you. the governor morris tells the story, he said at this moment general washington fixed me with an icy glare. and he took my hand and lifted it off his shoulder and fixed me with that gays and all i could think about was, how can i get out of this room as quickly as possible? it was a george washington. and that was the kind of person americans expected as the president. that's the kind of person americans wanted as their president in the early days of the republic. in what i call the augustan age of the american presidency, a nature that runs out from george washington to john quincy adams. before the united states became a democracy, that is a system in which the ordinary people actually exercise political power, ordinary people did not elect george washington. ordinary people, for the most part, did not even elect the electors who chose george washington. according to
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the constitution, and there are computers that the hallow start center is giving way out there, you will read that each state cell select electors and. it doesn't say how. they get to truth the legislature, the states get to choose how the legislators are chosen. and tell slate of the 18 20s, most state legislatures to the electors, not the voters in the. state and in that era americans expected their presidents to stand above them. no one wanted george washington to be just one of the gang. and this is why washington could get away with giving that reaction to gouverneur morris because it really served its purpose is to be apart from everyone else, because that's what americans wanted. and the idea that the presidency when,
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he became president, the presidency was a serious undertaking. and the idea that your president should have a sense of humor, that laughs and can laugh, especially in any kind of public setting, this, this just clashed with the idea that politics is a serious business, governing this country is a serious business. and so, it really hard-pressed to find a sense of humor, to find anybody in the white house telling jokes, really before about andrew jackson, who's elected in 1820. eight even with andrew jackson, it's a little bit hard to find anything that looks like modern humor. and i took up this subject understanding that conveying jokes or humor from the past to the president is a difficult undertaking because tastes change and perhaps you've heard the saying of felonious mike, that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. [laughter] well, it's a little bit like that. to translate, you'll see, to translate humor from the past to the present, something is lost in the translation, but i'm going to try anyway, and i think this is -- you look like a learned audience. [laughter] so i think you're going to be able to get this. andrew
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jackson is the first really popularly elected president. he's the one who makes the presidency the people's office. and his election appalled members of the establishment, members of, well, the adams family, and supporters of all those presidents who had come from the elite, from the american aristocracy. he was the first real common man to be president. and especially in places like new england, around boston, around harvard college, the idea that this unlettered westerner, this uncouth militarist, should be president of the united states was something they had a really hard time getting their heads around. and john quincy adams, who is defeated by jackson in 1828, and went back to massachusetts to like his wounds and to really fret over the future of the republic, if this is the kind of person the presidency attracts, there is no hope. well, there were people in new england there, were people at harvard, who
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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 and olive branch, they were going to present there, we're going to offer, to president jackson, and honorary harvard degree. john quincy adams almost had if it. and he wrote to the president off harvard, saying, you can't do this! it was only the reputation of my dear alma mater. but the occasion went forward. there were dissenters on the faculty, and they decided, oh, okay, we can't stop this. but we will show jackson up. in those days, it was not unheard of, and it was still accepted practice on certain occasions, for academics to give their addresses, to deliver their papers, in latin. their traditional language of
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intellectuals and the academy. and so, without telling the president of the university, who was, you know, basically whose reputation was on the line here, what they were going to do, said, okay, i'll be happy to speak on this occasion. and it was a commencement, and so there were several speeches. and the speakers before jackson stood up and gave their speeches in latin. with the belief that this would really flummox jackson. he obviously would not know what was happening. and be so embarrassed that we he would be humming mandate and be shown up and that would be the end of it. now, as i say, with this was at a moment when explaining these historical jackson was holding the union stories, context is necessary. together by main force. south carolina was threatening to secede from the union over a tariff that it didn't like. and jackson was asserting, no, the union is central. the union must hold. so this is the background. and everybody is waiting to hear what the
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president is going to say. jackson was the first of presidents, and this became a fairly common thing over the years, for presidents and other distinguished members of the government, secretaries of state, the marshall plan for example, was announced in a harvard commencement address. so jackson is going to give this pronouncement on the current state. and he's also going to deal with this attempt by the harvard faculty to embarrass him. so jackson stands up, and he says, e pluribus unum! sine qua non! [laughter] and sat down. but enough of you know enough that need to know the joke.
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[inaudible] and i have to confess that story is probably somewhat exaggerated. it's in the nature of -- jackson wasn't 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 the ones telling the jokes or telling the stories, but the president becomes the object, sometimes the butt, of the stories and the jokes. in a way that wasn't true. it really was considered sort of a lese-majesté with george washington tells something like that. but with jackson, things are fair game. the office of the presidency evolved until somebody like, well, the next really sort of ordinary person to get elected president is abraham lincoln and abraham lincoln is perhaps the most famous -- what shall i say -- humourist in the white house. and lincoln was known for -- and this is key -- you will see a connection here with
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lincoln and ronald reagan. lincoln told stories, he told jokes, and he realized that in politics, when you tell jokes, jokes often have a target. the person who is being joked about or being teased. and lincoln understood that in politics, in democratic politics, politics where you are asking for votes, the only safe target of a joke is you yourself. if you talk to anyone else, well, you're going to alienate them them, and their friends, and people who feel an affinity forward them. if you tell a joke about yourself, the first thing that happens if you avoid that. and the second thing is, you make people think, he doesn't have a big ego, he can tell jokes about himself. it humanizes these presidents for people and we see the beginning of a trend that would set in, really in full, in the 20th century,
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whereby in the 20 century, certainly by the second half of the 20th century, if you had to figure out who is going to win any election, any given election, you can look at things like unemployment rates and you can look at political platforms and you can look at other 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's a clear difference between the two candidates, that candidate is likely to win. well, with lincoln, this business of likability, we see it for the first time in lincoln really leave to make himself likable. he also did have a certain wit. and not everybody is blessed with the kind of wit that can, sort of, turn a particular situation in a humorous direction. but there was -- this is a story told about lincoln, but you'll see that lincoln has the punchline. so, lincoln before he went into politics, and after his sojourn in the house of representatives in the 1840s, was a practicing lawyer. and lawyers in springfield, illinois, to make a living, they had to write the
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circuit with the judges. there wasn't enough business in springfield itself. so they would go out, and there was all sorts of people who were lawyers. they could start young and they would hang on until they were old. and lincoln had a lawyer friend, or maybe a lawyer acquaintance, who was a relatively young man. and things were kind of slow in this day, or more precisely, there was a recess, and this guy was having a trial, he was conducting a trial, he was one of the attorneys in the trial. and he -- so there's a recess. and this guy is young and full of energy. and he was, he considered himself something of an athlete. in fact, a wrestler. and so, he got into wrestling match just during the -- lunch break, with this other guy, this townsperson. and they were wrestling, and they are rolling around on the ground, and this guy rips his pants. and so, then he, okay, the judge is back, the trial continues. and he stands up before the court, and as he
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turns to address the jury, it's really clear, he's got this big hole in the bottom of his pants. and so, the other members of the bar who were sitting around, unbeknownst to the guy, they decide to take up a contribution to buy him a new pair of pants. and they silently send this subscription sheet around the courtroom. and it comes to lincoln. and lincoln was always rather thrifty with his money. and he didn't want to give any money away for causes that didn't require it. and so he declined to contribute, and he said, he just wrote instead, i cannot contribute to the end in view. [laughter] so, when lincoln would introduce himself to audiences, in one of his sort of coming out speeches for the republican party, lincoln began his political life as a whig, but the whig party declined early in his fear career, and
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was replaced by the republican party. and the republicans of the first convention in illinois, bloomington, illinois. and lincoln attended. and he wasn't that well-known. he was somewhat known, but he needed to introduce himself to the group there. and so he began by saying that when he was coming, he was riding his horse, to the convention, he encountered a woman on the road who was coming the other way. and the woman stopped him, and said, sir, i believe you are the ugliest man i have ever seen. [laughter] and lincoln says, well, i responded, you know, what could i say? well, you know, this is the way god made me. and i -- sorry, but i don't have an excuse for that. and she says, well, okay. but the least you could do is have stayed home. [laughter] so -- on another occasion, lincoln sort of, what should we say, number two is the appearance, when one of his political opponents described him as two
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faced. and lincoln said, two faced? you've got to be kidding! you think i had another one, i'd wear this one? [laughter] lincoln used humor to warm up audiences. but he also used humor to get him through the dark days of the civil war. lincoln, the members of lincoln's cabinet very often groaned when lincoln would start to tell a story, because they knew these stories would go on and on, and there was business to be done. and sometimes the stories had a point, a moral. for example, at the end of the civil war, when jefferson davis was on the run, and nobody could quite figure out what to do with him, lincoln did not want to try him for treason. lincoln wished that the davis problem would simply go away. i think it was all in favor of a very speedy and lenient reconstruction. but he was, he had to have sort of some policy about what to do with confederate leaders. and so he was asked, mister president, what should we do? and lincoln said, well, it brings in mind of this baptist
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that i used to know. and this baptist was quite opposed to the use of any alcoholic beverages. he would not go near the stuff. but he came down with a fever. and his doctor prescribed a certain dram of whiskey, once a day. and the baptist couldn't decide whether to follow his conscience or the doctor's orders. but the baptist finally concluded, he came up with a solution. and so, 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 punch, then i could drink it in good conscience, and all would be well. well, says lincoln, if somehow mr. davis could slip out of the country unbeknownst to me, then much of our problem would go away. the institution
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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. but the constitution, congress is supposed to be, was supposed to be the leading institution. the president was simply the chief executive. he would execute the will of congress. and most presidents of the 19th century followed that model. there are only a couple, really, of 19th century presidents that people remember. andrew jackson, abraham lincoln, maybe -- i don't know, thomas jefferson if you like him. james polk has his fan club. but for the most part, presidents of the 19th century are unmemorable by design. but things change in
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the 20th century, when, and because the united states, for the first time, has a full-time foreign policy. i've written about 19th century presidents, and when i write about a presidency, i sort of have this idea, because i started writing the history in the 20th century, about dwight eisenhower's presidency, and so i think that there's got to be a lot on foreign policy. so, when i was writing about andrew jackson, when i was writing about ulysses grant, i was [inaudible] there's gotta be at least a chapter on foreign policy. but there's not that much foreign policy. it's only in the 20th century, when the united states becomes a world power, that the united states has a full time foreign policy. and then the president has to take charge. the president's commander in chief of the armed forces and he's the diplomatic chief with foreign countries. and it's in the 20th century that the presidency takes
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center stage in american politics, where it remains. and so, the presidency rewarded people who had these big personalities, these people, the kind of people who would arrest your attention when you walked into the room. the first president to fit that law, that the one who really set the model for modern presidents, was theodore roosevelt. and theodore roosevelt was one who really did sort of take up all the air in the room when he came came in. and his daughter, alice, who had some of this in herself, and who knew her father very well, said, if you want to understand my father, you have to remember that he has to be the bride at every wedding, and the corpse and every funeral. [laughter] and so this is the theodore roosevelt. odd thing is, and maybe this isn't so odd, given that sort of personality, but roosevelt, roosevelt could not appreciate jokes told at his expense. he never -- i mean, roosevelt himself didn't tell jokes. but most presidents eventually would get to the point where they would learn to laugh when people made jokes about them because that was the easiest way of dealing with it.
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roosevelt had to train himself to do this. there was one moment when roosevelt -- theodore roosevelt considered his most important accomplishment as president to be getting the panama canal under construction. this was his contribution to world history, he said. well, to get it going, roosevelt essentially had to foment a revolution in panama to break panama free of colombia. and under international law, or even ordinary codes of ethics, it was highly problematic. but roosevelt convened a cabinet session to basically convince everybody in the cabinet that he had done the right thing. and so, after he gave this long explanation as to why it needed to be done, and how it was just right, turns his attorney general, a guy named philander knox, stood up and said, mister president, really, you should not that such a great accomplishment as this be
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tainted by any whiff of legality. roosevelt didn't laugh. [laughter] the other members of the cabinet did. but i will -- i have to give roosevelt credit for this. roosevelt was one of the first presidents to be the target of other people's humor in a particular form -- editorial cartoons. and editorial cartoonists and a field day with roosevelt. because he had features that were easily caricatured. he had the glasses, he had the mustache, he was always sort of just full of himself and saying, bully! and delighted! and they were very various cartoonists who were to skewer roosevelt. and roosevelt, either to his credit or maybe to his shrewdness, would respond by writing a letter to the cartoonist, the person who wrote the cartoon, and said, oh, i got a grand great laugh out of it which -- he didn't -- he said, and i liked it so much, could you send me the original? [laughter] nobody ever knew what happened to the originals. but it was his way -- he
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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 it relates to this question of humor, and how presidents portray themselves, is the development of the modern mass media. and in fact, roosevelt and those editorial cartoons, the reason that they were so popular and so effective was that roosevelt was the first president in the age of the modern mass newspaper, of the penny press, technological developments in the printing industry made it possible for newspapers to be printed and sold for a penny. newspapers in the middle of the 19th century were like expensive magazines today. and ordinary people didn't read newspapers. you had to have a certain threshold of income. but by the beginning of the 20th century, everybody could read newspapers. and so, the
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president, and this 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. but it's only with great difficulty. it's really tempting for reporters to tell the stories about a single individual. and if you have a charismatic, and arresting individual like roosevelt, then it's easy, easier to tell stories about. and so as the expectations change, as the technology changes, the system selects for those characteristics. as an aside, but it's not really an aside, one of the things that i -- one of the principles that i've gradually inferred from my study of the presidency is sort of, for better or for worse, --
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and this applies whether you like the president or not -- we get the presidents we deserve. and i say this quite literally, because we chose them. now, maybe you didn't choose this particular president or that particular president, but this is the deaf best method anybody's come up with four selecting presidents, basically have this vote. we could argue about the electoral college. that's one of those, and that falls into the category that if it didn't exist, nobody would invent it today. but it does exist, and this is where we are. but anyway, so, once these expectations develop for presidents, presidents adopt them selves to them. and they, they become the kind of, the candidates who can live up to the expectations. harry truman, harry truman was somebody who never would have been president if the only way to the white house was through the front door. but harry truman was one of several presidents who became president by virtue, as
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a consequence of, of the death of his predecessor. and when reporters, when harry truman became president, he told reporters, i'm going to be as straight talking as i ever was before he became president. and harry truman was a very unlikely president. he was the creature of one of the last open political machines, the pendergast machine in kansas city. and he was known primarily as a political hack. but he was loyal to franklin roosevelt, and roosevelt needed a new vice president running rate in 1944. here's a reminder. in telling the story, i'm reminded how much things have changed over time in what we expect of our president but also how presidents and their
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running mates are chosen. so, we, we live in a time when president, whoever gets the nomination of the party, gets to choose, often without consulting anybody else, consider sarah palin, or even dan quayle, without telling anybody else, this is. marches that was not the case for most of american history must-have american history, the presidents were told, this is going to be your running mate. because of the leaders of the parties had the interests of the party at heart and they needed to balance the ticket geographically and by age and by various other things. so 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 was this real concern, especially among conservative democrats, that roosevelt would die in office and leave henry wallace, and the last of the hard court new dealers, as president of the united states. and so they threatened to meet me at the 1944 convention. so roosevelt says, hot, just get that guy from kansas city. they hardly met harry truman. but truman became president. anyway, so when truman becomes president. and he says that he's going to be the straight talking guy. and he did hold press conferences and this is actually another important part of the story. through the truman era, presidential press
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conferences as they were called were off the record events. these were for 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 of course, we live in this age of under transparency. if a president even says something inadvertently, it's considered fair game. truman discovered that there were limits on his candor. when he was thinking a lot, saying, in the middle of the korean war, yeah, maybe we'll use their color weapons, and they say, can we quote you on that? yeah, you can quote you. and that makes the headlines in the world, all of a sudden there's this along that there's going to be a nuclear war. it certainly doesn't have, sort of, that much in the way, sort of, equitable drugs. but i'm going to share a story with you. this is truman, once he got out of the white house. he discovered that he could be free with what
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he was saying. i have a very good friend in austin who grew up in kansas city. he grew up in kansas city in the 1950s. and he recalled visiting the truman library, the second of the presidential libraries after the franklin roosevelt library. and so he goes to his school, takes a field trip to the truman library. and my friend, greg, he's a third grader. and they're all trouping out of the bus to go into the library. and who should they see but former president harry truman, who lived just several blocks from the library, had an office in the library, and every morning he'd get up and walk to the library. and he would talk with the people on the way -- they didn't have security in the way, and he would talk to the people. and so he started chatting up this group of third graders. and he said so 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
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himself on his knowledge of history because he read a lot. so he was quizzing the kids. and truman liked to show off how much you know about history, so he was going to quiz the third graders and demonstrate that he knew more than a third grader. [laughter] but what he said was this, and my friend still just shakes his head and -- listen to what it is. so greg says, the president stopped, and he said, okay, kitties, 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 each of the houses, there's 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. kiddies, do you know why the senate committee is called the committee on foreign relations? and greg and the other third graders, they have no idea what to say. [laughter] and truman says, ha! it's because senators are too old to have affairs, ha ha! [laughter]
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anyway. so. [laughter] i looked, and look for good jokes told by dwight eisenhower. dwight eisenhower was a pretty straight ahead guy. and the best i could come up with is eisenhower's definition of an atheist. now what eisenhower's definition of an atheist is! he says it's somebody who goes to a football game where notre dame plays smu, and he doesn't care who wins. [laughter] okay. a running out of time. so i'm going to tell you, i've got to tell you a story about lyndon johnson. i actually got a
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couple more reagan stories i can tell, but i'll tell you about lyndon johnson. and this is one lyndon johnson -- it's not at all clear that st. john's have much of a sense of humor. so stories were told about lyndon johnson rather that story is told by lyndon johnson. but here's one that does capture the essence of lyndon johnson. and it's told of the 1960 democratic campaign for the nomination for president. and lyndon johnson has thrown his hat in the ring, and the other two principal candidates are stewart symington, a senator from missouri, and john kennedy, a junior senator from massachusetts. and the three men are sitting in the green room, ahead of this debate, there are about to have a debate. they're sitting in the room. why the green rooms are called green rooms, i don't know. but anyways, they're sitting there. and they're making small talk. and kennedy
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says, stewart, 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, your 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, stuart looks at kennedy, something to, sort of the model of a senator, central casting in holiday for senator, this tall, square jawed guy with this great main of white hair, and he looks at the much younger kennedy, and he looks at johnson, he said, jack, i don't know what to tell you. because, you see, i had a dream last night, and in the dream, god reached down from heaven and tapped me on the shoulder. and he said, stu, for your long and faithful service,
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you are going to be rewarded. you will win the democratic nomination. you will be the next president of the united states. so, symington looks at kennedy, looks at johnson. johnson looks at the other two. now, when i tell this story to my students in boston, where the johnson library is located, i ask them, how many of you have been to the lyndon johnson library, which is there, and it is unusual in presidential libraries are increasingly before you go in. there's a
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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, whether you might be good at a career, is to measure yourself against people who actually do that career and do that occupation. you want to be a teacher, follower teacher and. if you want to be an engineer or a lawyer or a doctor cemented on a daily basis. so i tell the students if they want to go to bob's want to be president, go there, stand in front of that statue, look at him in the eye, and see how you measure up. one of the reasons i tell them this is that the statue of 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 begins. and
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by this time, he had kind of jowels. and when johnson would get sort of invested in something that he was saying, he would often shake his head -- in this case he did shake his head -- and those figures would flap a little bit, and the jowels would kind of, wait would go on the charles, 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 either one of you on the shoulder [laughter] [applause]. okay. i'm going to stop there. i'm going to stop there. and see if there are any responses, any questions. and so we'll see where we go. i certainly don't want to overstay my welcome. questions, any reactions? yes, sir, in the back. >> obviously, saturday night [inaudible] what do you think.
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>> i will repeat it, go ahead, yeah. what do i think of saturday night live. >> which is the best president impersonation of all? >> yeah? okay. that's really hard question to answer in any way that will get general assent. [laughter] so a lot of it depends on how much you dislike the presidents. because saturday night live, which started hearing during the presidency of gerald ford, and gerald ford was the first victim of saturday night live. and saturday night live really did change the context for presidential humor. because it was the first regularly scheduled satire, spoof, on presidents. and in a certain sense, it was an equal opportunity caricaturist and satirist. and so, it really didn't matter what the politics of the president were. the cast on saturday night live went after whoever happened to be in the white house, because their business was to get laughs, and to, sort of, make fun of
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presidents. but it really did -- it raised the bar for a president's ability to roll with a joke. and gerald ford was quite unfairly lampooned, but in fact it is always unfair, they're a great exaggeration. infants case, it wasn't entirely mischaracterization. so chevy chase was the one, he's part of the original cast of saturday night live, and used to do the stumble down, the steps of air force one, and you'll pull the tablecloth off the table and do all these clumsy stuff, giving out the impression that gerald ford was a stumble bomb. when a fact, fort was probably the best athlete, one of the most graceful individuals, to occupy the white house. and forward could have tried to dispute this characterization of him. bore it. but there wa s got but he was shrewd enough o
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realize it would have been a waste of time. so, he basically grinned and bore it. but there was one particular occasion -- i don't remember exactly the context -- where he had a chance to make up 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 chevy chase has been lampooning gerald ford for some while and the two of them meet on 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. but i will tell you, for my money, the best presidential saturday night live connection is one that goes full circle with dana carvy and george h. w. bush. so dana carvy became famous for
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his characterization of bush. and bush's sometime sort of telegraphic style of speech. and while bush was president, he would smile and yeah, that's funny, funny. so after he left the white house, he no longer had to do that. but george h. w. bush, i had the honor and the pleasure to encounter him a few times. i used to teach at texas a&m at the george bush school of public service. and so i got to meet him, 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 sense of humor and this capacity for humor that he does not long after the left the white house, and about the
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time that his presidential library was opening and school was opening at texas a&m, he gave a closed door address to students at texas, closed-door in the sense that the press was not allowed. and one of the things that presidents often have a hard time with -- and george w. h. bush really had this problem -- when the press was around, he sort of had to act presidential. so he often came across as wooden -- 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 an imitation of dana carvy imitating himsel. 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 the aisles. and finally, barbara bush had to pull out the hook and say, get him out of here. he's not a
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comedian. so, that's what i remember about saturday night live and presidents. other questions? reactions? yes. >> okay. so, circling back to your initial talk about the president, i'm assuming it's a lack of humor that's the similar characteristics, so can you expound on that a little bit? >> yeah, so one of the striking things to me about president trump is his, what shall i say, his lack of an observable sense of humor and not even any attempt to fake it. i would'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 they were unrollbackable, that these changes were permanent -- and i had to change a lot of that. but every president, really from about, john kennedy or you could say even earlier than that, had to at least fake a
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sense of humor. and sometimes it meant 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 it plays into this stereotype, however false the stereotype might be. and in one of his last speeches before national correspondents club, was president for a long time, they would give their--. and obama in this case, he showed before and after picture of him so
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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 a strapping 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 candidate. and he was a essentially playing into people's anger, people's anger at the establishment. and donald trump liked to liken himself to andrew jackson as the antiestablishment candidate and president. i think that 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 rejection of the entrenched elite. 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.
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hillary clinton was clearly the candidate of the establishment and trump was the outsider. and so, the idea of mobilizing the dissatisfaction, that 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, any effort to broaden the base of people who chose him. and president trump has, i don't know if this is a deliberate decision or just that he operates on gut instinct, he seems to and it got him to the white house, -- and he seems to be content who with appealing to his base and not really trying much to broaden the base. and he holds rallies, he holds political
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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. and 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, boy, if you could pull it off, it's great, but it is hard to pull it off after you've been at the center of the establishment as president. 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, but he seems to make little no effort to do it as president. now, is this
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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 historian's dodge and say it's too early to tell. as i like to say, historians can really run with that a long way. [laughs] so, edward gibbon, who wrote a six volume history of the decline and fall of the roman empire, which is published in the late 1700s, and it describes events that had happened a thousand years before. he was once asked what's the lasting significance of rome. and 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, and that is election day 2020. and the reason i say this is that presidents who make a lasting
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mark on the american political system, who are elevated into the ranks of really important presidents, are 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. and promise is one thing. you can be a persuasive promiser, but it doesn't always pay off. and 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 hims until now, any president who puts himself up for reelection is asking for, in the british context, this
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would be 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've got this set of rules, and under this set of rules, if you win, that says the american people liked what you did. does it mean they liked what you did and an absolute sense? in an ideal world? no. they only like you better than the person you are running against. that's the standard in every election. nobody 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 has announced, and the changes to american foreign policy, to american domestic policy, those will have received the ratification
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of voters. and so then 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 runs and is defeated in the general election, if he is challenged in the primaries and loses, should he resign or be impeached and convicted, 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. because for me, whether it has to do with humor, whether it has to do with attitude or any number of things, presidents are less important for what they are than for what they represent. one of the things they most
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represent is, they are barometers of the political culture. as i said before, they get the presidents but they deserve. if voters say, we like this new dispensations and it goes on, then there will have been this effective change of mind in the american electorate. that is something that will be of lasting importance. so if you ask me, in december 2020, i will no longer be able to say, too soon to tell. please invite me back. but let's make it april, 2021. thank you very much, you have been a wonderful audience. thank you all for coming.
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