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tv   The Presidency Humor in the White House  CSPAN  April 2, 2021 12:58pm-2:07pm EDT

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i can see the millenials fact checking now. >> it's been great chatting with you, joe crowley, mark russell, it's been a lot of none of. >> thanks, gordie. american history tv on c-span3. every weekend documenting america's story. funding for american history tv comes from these companies who support c-span3 as a public service. up next on the presidency, hit historian h.w. brands on humor in the white house. from george washington to donald trump, he considers our funny our chief executives have been, or not, and whether they've used
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humor to their advantage. the event is just over an hour. i'm going to be talking about, well, humor in the white house. and as i was thinking of this title, i realized, uh-oh, this is a potential problem, because i was really talking about the presidents and jokes and humor. and i know enough about the history of the presidency and some of you perhaps will have caught on to this, there's a potential problem there. there were two presidents who served before the white house was the official residence of the president. if i wanted to say, the presidency and 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
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problem. but i'm going to follow the lead of perhaps the most successful humorist in the white house. it might not be the person that you're 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. again, some of you will have heard this joke, but please pretend you haven't heard it before and laugh at the appropriate point. so this is a joke. this is a key to part of my story, that ronald reagan used to tell. and the key is, as you'll 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.
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but there was an interregnum, a period between the time he stopped getting calls from hollywood producers, he couldn't get any good roles. between when his career ended, his film career ended, and 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 at the time 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 ge theater." "the ge theater" was an experiment in 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 you film plays and then
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people just watch plays on tv. reagan was the host. he wasn't the 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 electric. and the glories and wonders and conveniences of electricity. better living through electricity. this is what he would do. 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 find himself addressing the local rotary club or the elks or the chamber of commerce. and he used to call it the rubber chicken circuit. he found himself in small towns where people didn't know who he was. he wasn't famous, he was an a-list actor, he was a b-list
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actor. jack warner of warner brothers said when he heard that reagan was running for governor of california in the 1960s, he said, no, no, jimmy stewart for governor, reagan for best friend. that's the sort of roles he played. he's this relative nonentity, and he's going to these obscure towns and giving these standard talks. the story that reagan told went like this. he is about to give a talk in some small town in the midwest. and he doesn't know the people he's going to be speaking to. it's been lined up by his publicity agent. so he's going to address this group. one of the locals, the program director of whatever club it was, we'll call it the elks, is going to introduce reagan. but the thing is that the program director isn't familiar with ronald reagan and he simply sees the printed name, ronald
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r-e-a-g-a-n on the printed program, and he's supposed to introduce him and act like he knows something about him but the problem is he didn't know how the last name, r-e-a-g-a-n, is supposed to be pronounced. it could go ray-gan. it could be ree-gan. people of irish background pronounce it both ways. this man is in a quandary. this is back in the 1950s. today you could go on youtube and somebody would be introducing him and you could hear how it was pronounced. so this guy 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. he's trying to figure out how he's going to resolve this problem and discover how the name is pronounced. he's deep in thought on the morning before the talk, it's a small town, he's walking around like this, in one of the neighborhoods. while he's walking, he encounters one of his neighbors. the neighbor's out walking his dog. and in fact so this guy actually doesn't encounter the neighbor,
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he trips over the dog. and the neighbor says, joe, boy, you really look like you're worried, what's going on? and joe starts to say, well, he explains the deal. he's starting to say, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the program. and he says, do you know this guy? have you ever heard of this guy? how do i pronounce his name? and he says, oh, it's ronald reagan, he used to be an actor. joe says you're sure it's ray-gan? yeah, it's ray-gan, if you say that you'll be fine. a huge weight is lifted off his shoulders. as he's walking back, he repeats, reagan, reagan, reagan. again, he trips over the dog. he says, that's a cute dog, what is it? a bagel. [ laughter ]
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so this is ronald reagan's approach. it characterizes a large part of where i'll 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, of a candidate. and this because, well, i told you this story, and no one would say it's an enormously clever story but it's enough to get a ha ha ha a little bit. reagan recognized from those years on the rubber chicken circuit that if there's an audience that doesn't know you, if there's an audience that might be a little skeptical about the message you're conveying, if you can get them to laugh, it loosens them up. it makes them feel that you're a real person and not simply this flack for ge. it worked for reagan as president of the united states. it represented something of a
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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. after i said what the topic was going to be tonight, i got to thinking about it a little more. i happen to be teaching, as of this january, a course i teach every other year, a course on the history of the presidency. it's standard for me to begin the course with, i put up on a screen like this, i put an image, an illustration, in this case a portrait, of our first president and our current president. and i've been teaching it long enough that i go back to this course, back to george w. bush. and so our first president, our current president, and underneath, the one word, "explain." and so this is the theme of the course, this is what the
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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 to barack obama? how did we get from george washington to donald trump? one of the striking things is 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 slopes 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 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 that presidents are usually pretty
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talented people. and so there's -- they usually have a lot of positive things that can be said about them. but while they're president, typically the other party or sometimes factions in 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. 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 have won. they fool themselves because by 1960, the democrats had no
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incentives 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. this question of popularity and how presidents look better in the rearview mirror is due to this artifact, nobody sniping at them anymore. when they're in office, you learn all the bad things about them. the clearest statement of presidential decline was made by henry adams. he was the grandson of john adams. 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. there were two adams presidents in their background but henry adams couldn't even make a start in politics.
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but henry adams became a very distinguished historian. when he was writing in the 1860s, 1860s and early 1870s, when ulysses grant was president, this was ten years after the publication of charles darwin's "on the origin of species," the introduction of the theory of evolution, henry adams' take was, anybody who looks at the progression of the presidency from george washington to ulysses grant understands that evolution is a crock, it utterly refutes the theory. anyway. but i am going to start -- so i was going to say, 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 is a tough act to follow. but there say striking thing, at least, i'm going to propose this you to, you can decide whether you agree with this or not. there is one sense at least in
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which donald trump is positively, and this is an adjective i haven't heard applied to donald trump, that donald trump is positively washingtonian. he is very much like the father of our country. and do you know why, can you guess what i'm going to say is that particular characteristic? 603, that's not too bad. all right. well, okay. so i hear it in the front but i'm not going to advertise it just yet. you all know the story -- i don't know if you know this, it's part of american historical lore, that george washington, 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 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
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true, i read enough of washington's diary and letters to know that they fudge the truth. whether or not george washington couldn't tell a lie, he could not tell a joke. and he couldn't tell a joke, or maybe it's just that he wouldn't tell a joke. nor would he laugh at jokes. and this in part because he self-consciously presented himself to the world as this very sober minded, serious character. as a young man he got ahold of this list of sort of maxims and 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 these were words that he came to live by. now, i really don't know if in his private life, george washington -- nah, i don't think
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he told jokes. he might have laughed at jokes. but in his public life, he certainly did not. people would try to warm him up. there is a story that is told on good authority about george washington at the constitutional convention. this is before he's president. he's president of the convention. and he is this austere figure. he's the commander of the continental army. he's the one who won the revolutionary war and therefore independence for the united states. he's presiding over the constitutional convention. and he was chosen in part because he was this very straitlaced, sober minded individual. he also wouldn't say much. it was known he wouldn't participate in the debates. you make him president, the presiding officer, it gives him an excuse not to. but some of the members of the convention, one in particular, morris, he lived at different times in new york and pennsylvania, and he was a delegate to the convention from
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pennsylvania. and he was very much an hale fellow well-met type. he walked on a wooden leg. and the story that was sometimes told about him, he liked to tell the story that he had lost his leg in the revolutionary war. it was a battle injury. the other story that was told about him is that he badly injured himself diving out of the bedroom window of one of his lovers just at the moment that her husband was returning home. and it was badly set and the leg had to be amputated. anyway, morris was one who wanted this convention to be, well, not quite as somber as it seemed to be. so he made a bet with some of his friends there, including alexander hamilton, alexander hamilton led the other side, and hamilton knew washington better than morris did. and so he made this bet that he could actually loosen up george
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washington. and so hamilton said, you got a bet, what do you want the wager to be? it will be the finest dinner in philadelphia for a dozen of each of our friends. so if i win, then you treat us. if you win, i treat you. so he goes up to george washington, and this is at a break in the gathering, and he puts -- he slaps george washington on the shoulder, puts his arm around him and says, george, how are you doing, glad to see you. and the way morris tells the story, he said, at that moment, general washington fixed me with an icy glare, and he took my hand and lifted it off his shoulder, and fixed me with that gaze, and all i could think about was, how can i get out of this room as quickly as possible. that was george washington.
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and that was the kind of person americans expected as their president. that's the kind of person americans wanted as president in the early days of the republic. in what i call the augustan age, the age from george washington to john quincy adams, before the united states became a democracy, that is, a system in which 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 the constitution, and there are copies that the hauenstein center is giving away out there, you'll read that each state shall select electors and this didn't say how. they get to choose. and until as late as the 1820s, most state legislatures chose the electors, not voters in the
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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. and this is why washington could get away with giving that reaction to morris, because it really served his purposes to be this one who held himself apart from everyone else because that's what americans wanted. and the idea that the presidency, when he became president, the presidency was a serious undertaking. and the idea that your president should have a sense of humor, who laughs, especially in any kind of public setting, this just clashed with the idea that politics is a serious business, governing this country is a serious business. and so you're really hard-pressed to find a sense of humor, to find anybody in the white house telling jokes,
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really before about andrew jackson, who is elected in 1828. even with andrew jackson, it's a little bit hard to find anything that looks like modern humor. and i took up this subject understanding that conveying jokes or humor from the past to the present is a difficult undertaking, because tastes change. and perhaps you've heard the saying of thelonious monk that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. it's a little bit like that. 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 you look like a learned audience, so i think you'll be able to get this one. andrew jackson is the first really popularly elected president. he's the one who makes the presidency preeminently the people's office.
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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 pay let, 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 mill tarrist, should be president of the united states, was something they had a really hard time getting their heads around. john quincy adams, who was defeated by jackson in 1828 and went back to massachusetts to lick his wounds and to really fret over the future of the republic, if this is the kind of person the presidency attracts, there is no hope. well, there were people in new england, there were people at harvard, who took a different view. this is the way the world is
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going, we have to make our peace with it. and so the board of trustees of harvard decided that in the interests of holding out an olive branch, they were going to present, they were going to offer to president jackson an honorary harvard degree. john quincy adams almost had a fit. and he wrote to the president of harvard saying, you can't do this, it will sully the reputation of my dear alma mater. but the occasion went forward. there were dissenters on the faculty. they decided, okay, we can't stop this, but we will show jackson up. in those days, it was not unheard of, and it was still accepted practice on certain occasions, for academics to give their addresses, to deliver their papers in latin, the traditional language of intellectuals in the academy. and so, without telling the president of the university, who
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was -- whose reputation was on the line here, said i'll be happy to speak at this occasion. the speakers stood up and gave their speeches in latin with the belief that this would really flummox jackson, he would obviously not know what was happening, he would be embarrassed, humiliated, and shown up. now, as i say, explaining these historical stories, context is necessary. this was at a moment when jackson was holding the union together by main force. south carolina was threatening to secede from the union over a tariff that had 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 president is going to say. jackson was the first of
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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 general address. so jackson is going to give this pronouncement on the current state and is going to deal with this attempt by the harvard faculty to embarrass him. so jackson stands up and he says, he e pluribus unum, sine qua non, and sits down. that's the best i've got on a joke from jackson, and i have to confess that that story is probably somewhat exaggerated. it's in the nature of -- jackson wasn't a particularly funny guy, but one of the things you see in the evolution of the presidency
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is that it's not always the presidents telling the jokes or the stories but the president becomes the object, sometimes the butt of the stories and the jokes, in a way that wasn't true, that was really considered sort of lese majeste. the office of the presidency evolves until the next sort of ordinary person to get elected president is abraham lincoln. and abraham lincoln is perhaps the most famous, what shall i say, humorist in the white house. and lincoln was known for, and this is key, and you'll see a connection here between lincoln and ronald reagan, lincoln told stories. he told jokes. but he realized that in politics, when you tell jokes, jokes often have a target.
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the person who is being joked about or being teased. and lincoln understood that in politics, in democratic politics, politics where you're asking for votes, the only safe target of a joke is you yourself. if you target anybody else, well, you're going to alienate them and their friends and people who feel an affinity toward them. if you tell a joke about yourself, the first good thing that happens is you avoid that, and the second thing is, you make people think, he doesn't have a big ego, he can tell jokes about himself. it humanizes these presidents for people. and we see the beginning of a trend that would set in really in full in the 20th century, where by the 20th 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
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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. with lincoln, this business of likability, we see it for the first time, and lincoln really needs to make himself likeable. 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 this is a story told about lincoln, but you'll see that lincoln has the punch line. 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 ride the circuit with the judges. there wasn't enough business in springfield itself. so they would go out, and there
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was all sorts of people who were lawyers, they could start young and hang on 'til they were old. lincoln had a lawyer friend, or maybe a lawyer acquaintance, who was a relatively young man. these were slow on this day, or there was a recess, this guy was conducting a trial, one of the attorneys in the trial, and he -- so there is 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. he got in a wrestling match just during the lunch break, with this other guy, this towns person. and they're wrestling and rolling around on the ground. this guy rips his pants. and so then, okay, the judge is back, the trial continues. and he stands up before the court and as he turns to address the juror, it's really clear, he's got this big hole in the bottom of his pants. and so the other members of the
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bar who are 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. so he declined to contribute. and he said, he just wrote instead, i cannot contribute to the end in view. [ laughter ] when lincoln would introduce himself to audiences, in one of his coming-out speeches for the new republican party, lincoln began his political life as a whig, but the whig party declined early why his career and it was replaced bit by the republican party. they held their first convention in bloomington, illinois.
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lincoln attended, he wasn't well-known, he needed to introduce himself to the group there. he began by saying when he was coming -- he was riding his horse to the convention, he encountered a woman on the road, who was coming the other way. and the woman stopped him and said, sir, i believe you are the ugliest man i have ever seen. and lincoln says, well, i responded, what could i say? i said, well, this is the way god made me, and i'm sorry, but i don't have an excuse for that. she says, well, okay, but the least you could do is have stayed home. so on another occasion lincoln sort of, what shall i say, lampooned his appearance, when one of his political opponents described him as two-faced. and lincoln said, two-faced, you've got to be kidding, you would think if i had another one, i would wear this one? lincoln used humor to warm up
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audiences but he also used humor to get him through the dark days of the civil war. the members of lincoln's cabinet very on 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 the davis problem would simply go away. lincoln was all in favor of a very speedy and lenient reconstruction. but he had to have sort of some policy about what to do with confederate leaders. so he was asked, mr. president, what should we do? lincoln said, it brings me in mind of this baptist that i used to know. and this baptist was quite
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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's a punch bowl over there, and if unbeknownst to me, you could slip a little bit of that whiskey into the punch, then i could drink it 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.
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the institution of the presidency changed dramatically at the end of the 19th century and 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 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 were only a couple 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 changed in the 20th century when and because the united states for the first time
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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 history in the 20th century about dwight eisenhower's presidency. so i think there's got to be a lot on foreign policy. so when i was writing about andrew jackson, writing about ulysses grant, i thought, there has to be at least a chapter on foreign policy. but there's really not that much foreign policy. it's only in the 20th century when the united states becomes a world power that the united states has a full-time foreign policy. and then the president has to take charge. the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces, the de facto commander in chief when it comes to foreign politics. and so the presidency rewarded people who had these big personalities, these people, the kind of people who would arrest your attention when you walk in the room. the first president to fit that mold, the one who really set the
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model for modern presidents, was theodore roosevelt. theodore roosevelt was one who really did sort of take up all the air in the room when he came in. and his daughter alice, who had some of this in herself, and 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 at every funeral. and so this is theodore roosevelt. the odd thing is, 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. roosevelt had to train himself to do this. there was one moment when roosevelt -- theodore roosevelt
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considered his most important accomplishment as president to be getting the panama canal under construction. this was his contribution to world history, he said. to get it going, roosevelt eventually had to foment a revolution in panama to break panama free of colombia. 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. so after he gave this long explanation as to why it needed to be done and how it was just the right time, his attorney general stood up and said, mr. president, really, you should not let such a great accomplishment as this be tainted by any whiff of legality. roosevelt didn't laugh. the other members of the cabinet did. but i have to give roosevelt credit for this, roosevelt was
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one of the first presidents to be the target of other people's humor in a particular form. editorial cartoons. and editorial cartoonists had a field day with roosevelt, because he had features that were easily caricaturecaricatur. he had the glasses, he had the mustache, he was always full of himself and saying, bully, delighted. and there were various cartoonists who would skewer roosevelt. and roosevelt, either to his credit or maybe to his shrewdness, would respond by writing a letter to the cartoonist, the person who wrote cartoon, and said, oh, i got a great laugh out of it, which he didn't, and he said, i liked it so much, could you send me the original. now, nobody ever knew what happened to the originals. but it was his way, he understood that he needed to do this even though it came hard.
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the presidency would continue to evolve, and the biggest evolution in 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 in 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. so the president, and this also contributes to the rise of the president as the center of american politics.
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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 their story about a single individual. if you have a charismatic, arresting individual like roosevelt, it's easier to tell stories about. 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 worse, and this applies to whether you like the president or not, we get the presidents we deserve. and i say this quite literally, because we chose them. now, maybe you didn't choose this particular president or that particular president. but this is the best method anybody's come up with for selecting presidents, basically we have this vote. we can argue about the electoral
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college, that's one of those that falls into the category that 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 adapt themselves to them and they become the kind of 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 a consequence of the death of his predecessor. when reporters -- when harry truman became president, he told reporters, i'm going to be as straight talking as i ever was before i became president. and harry truman was a really unlikely president. he was a creature of one of the last urban political machines,
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the prendergast 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 presidential running mate. i'm reminded how much things have changed over time in what we expect of our presidents and also how presidents and their running mates are chosen. so we live in a time when presidents, whoever gets the nomination of the party, gets to choose, often without consulting anybody else, consider sarah palin, or even dan quayle, without telling anybody else this is my choice. that was not the case for most of american history. most of american history, the presidents were told this is going to be your running mate, because the leaders of the party had the interests of the party at heart and they needed to
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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 a real concern especially among conservative democrats that roosevelt would die in office and leave henry wallace, last of the hard-core new dealers, as president of the united states. they threatened a mutiny at the convention. roosevelt said, already, just get that guy from kansas city. he had hardly met harry truman. anyway, so truman becomes president. and he says that he's going to be this 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 conferences, as they were called, were off the record events. these were for background. the president could be quoted only with his explicit
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permission. so 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, of course, we live in this age of utter transparency. if a president even says something inadvertently, it's considered fair game. truman discovered there were limits on his candor, when he was thinking aloud, in the middle of the korean war, yeah, maybe we'll use nuclear weapons, can we quote you on that, yeah, you can quote me. that make headlines and the world is alarmed that all of a sudden there will be nuclear war. when he got out of the white house, truman discovered he could be freer on what he was saying. i have a good friend who grew up in kansas city in the 1950s.
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and he recalled visiting the truman library, the second of the presidential libraries after the franklin roosevelt library. 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 trooping 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 would go up and he would walk to the library. and he would talk with the people on the way. so he started chatting up this group of third graders. he said, hello, kiddies, so what do you know about history and what do you know about politics? truman, the last president not to have a college degree, but he prided himself on his knowledge because he read a lot. he was quizzing the kids, and truman liked to show off how
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much he knew about history and that he knew more than a third grader. my friend greg still shakes his head in puzzlement in this. greg says, the president stopped, and said, okay, kiddies, i've got a question for you, now, you probably know that both the house of representatives and the senate have various committees. and they deal with issues, and in each of the houses, there is a committee that deals with our relations with other countries. now, in the house of representatives, it's called the committee on foreign affairs. in the senate it's called the committee on foreign relations. 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. and truman says, it's because senators are too old to have affairs, ha ha! anyway.
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so i looked, i looked for good jokes told by dwight eisenhower. dwight eisenhower was a pretty straight-ahead guy. the best i could come up with eisenhower's definition of an atheist. he says, it's somebody who goes to a football game where notre dame plays smu and he doesn't care who wins. okay. i'm running out of time. so i'm going to tell you, i got to tell you a story about lyndon johnson. i've actually got a couple of more reagan stories i could tell you. but i'll tell you about lyndon johnson. this is one, lyndon johnson, ñ clear that lyndon johnson, lyndon johnson had much of a sense of humor. so stories were told about lyndon johnson rather than stories told by lyndon johnson. but here is one that does capture the essence of lyndon
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johnson. and it's told of the 1968 democratic campaign for the nomination for president. and lyndon johnson has thrown his hat in the ring. and the other two principal candidates are stuart 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, they're about to have a debate. they're sitting in the green room. why green rooms are called a green room, i don't know, i've been in lots of them and none of them has been green. nonetheless, they're sitting there making small talk. and kennedy says, stuart, lyndon, i have to tell you something, something very strange that happened to me. my dream, god reached down from heaven and tapped me on the
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shoulder and said, jack, you're my boy, this is your year. you are going to win the democratic nomination. you are going to be the next president of the united states. what do you think of that? so stuart symington looks at kennedy. symington, sort of the model of a senator, central casting, this tall, square-jawed guy with a great mane of white hair. he looks at the much younger kennedy, 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, you are going to be rewarded,
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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, have any of you by chance been to the lyndon johnson library? it's unusual among presidential libraries, greeting you before you go in is a life size statue of lyndon johnson. i invite my students, especially those who think they have ideas of a career in politics. one of the ways to determine, i think, whether you might be good at a career, is to measure yourself against people who actually do that career, do that occupation. if you think you want to be a teacher, follow a teacher around. if you think you want to be an
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engineer, if you think you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, see what they do on a daily basis. i tell students who think they want to go into politics, they want to be president, go over there, stand in front of that statue statue, look lyndon johnson in the eye and see how you measure up. one of the reasons i tell them this is the statue of johnson is very lifelike. he had an unusually large head. and he had really big ears. and by this time, he had kind of jowls. and when johnson would get sort of invested in something that he was saying, he would often shake his head, in this case he did shake his head, and those big ears would flap a little bit, and the jowls would kind of -- waves would go on the jowls. this is what he did. and he said, stuart, jack, i
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don't know what to tell you, because you see, i had a dream last night, and i don't remember tapping either one of you on the shoulder. [ laughter ] okay. i'm going to stop there. i'm going to stop there 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 live" has done a lot of president stuff. what do you think -- >> i'll repeat it. go ahead. what do i think of "saturday night live"? >> who do you think did the president impersonation of all? >> that's a really hard question to answer in any way that will get general assent. a lot of it depends on how much you dislike the presidents.
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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 because it was the first regularly scheduled satire spoof on presidents. and in a certain sense, it was an equal opportunity caricaturist and satirist. so it really didn't matter what the politics of the president were. the cast on "saturday night live" went after whoever 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 president's ability to roll with a joke.
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and so gerald ford, gerald ford was quite unfairly lampooned. but, in fact, lampoons are always unfair. they're great of exaggeration. in ford's case, it was an entirely mischaracterization. chevy chase was the one, and he used to do the stumble down, the steps of air force one and pull the table cloth off the table and do all this clumsy stuff, giving out the impression that gerald ford was this stumble bum when, in fact, ford was probably the best athlete, one of the most graceful individuals to occupy the white house. and ford could have tried to dispute this characterization of him, but he was shrewd enough to realize it would've been a waste of time. so, he basically grinned and bore it. but there was one particular occasion, i don't remember exactly the context where he had a chance to make a little bit of a comeback.
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now, again, this falls in the category of you might need this punch line 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, you, chevy chase, with a very funny suburb. [ laughter ] [ applause ] 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 his characterization of bush.
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and bush is sometimes sort of telegraphic style of speech. and while bush was president, he would smile, 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. 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, and about the time that his presidential library was opening and school was opening at texas a&m, he gave a closed-door address to
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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 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 kind of -- lyndon johnson had the same problem. but once he knew there were no reporters in the room and there were no cameras, he could just sort of let himself go. and he did an imitation of dana carvy imitating himself. [ laughter ] 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. [ laughter ] and finally barbara bush had to pull out the hook and say get him out of here, he's not a comedian. so, that's what i remember about "saturday night live" and presidents. other questions, reactions? yes, okay. >> so, circling back to your
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initial, talk about the president, this president, and george washington, i'm assuming it's lack of humor that's similar characteristic. so could 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 have said, i would have said before president trump was elected, of course, i would have said a lot of things. i had very different expectations about changes in the presidency. and i sort of thought they were unroll-backable, that these changes were permanent, and i had to change a lot of that. but every president, really from about -- well, definitely from john kennedy, or you could say to even earlier than that, had to at least fake a sense of humor. and sometimes it meant just laughing at the jokes people told about you. sometimes it would be telling jokes yourself.
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and so presidents would sort of do this sort of 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 likeable 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 the national correspondence club where presidents for a long time they would give their, sort of their johnny carson, jay leno monologue sort of thing. and obama at this case, he showed before and after picture of him. so here he is as president, and he's got a lot of gray hair. and here he is before he becomes president. and he says, ah, yeah, those days when i was a strapping young muslim socialist. [ laughter ]
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but donald trump has definitely took a different route to the white house, and i wasn't quite so surprised at the different route to the white house. because he was the ultimate of the anti-establishment candidate. and he was essentially playing into people's anger. people's 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 similarity between the individuals, trump and jackson, than there is in the people who voted for them. in both cases it was a rejection of this 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. hillary clinton was clearly the candidate of the establishment.
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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 there was -- and i would say until now there still 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 if it's just he operates on gut instinct, and he seems to, and it got him to the white house so you can't say that it's 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're going to -- and he holds political rallies. this is something no president, no sitting president did. in fact, few presidents even before they were elected, few candidates would hold the kind of rallies. but the idea of holding the
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rallies after you've been elected is something brand new. and the point of the rally seems to be to keep stoking that 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 anti-establishment candidate. it's, 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 model. so 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's a funny guy and tells jokes to the 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 as i get asked questions about the meaning of the trump presidency
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fairly often. and my answer is to take the historian's dodge and say that it's too early to tell. [ laughter ] and as i like to say, historians can really run with that a long way. so, edward gibbon who wrote a six-volume history of the decline and fall of the roman empire, which was published in the late 1700s. it was describing events that had happened a thousand years before. he was once asked, so what is the lasting significance of rome? and you know what he said? too soon to tell. [ laughter ] well, but i can give you a date, a precise date on which it will be no longer too soon to tell. and that is election day 2020. and the reason i say this is that presidents who make a lasting mark on the american political system, who are elevated into the ranks of
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really important presidents are exclusively those presidents who get re-elected. 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. so, i'm not going to say that anybody can get elected on the promise. but you can get elected on promises and not follow through. you get re-elected on the performance. and any president who puts himself, and they're all him s until now basically is asking for, well, in a british context, this would be a vote of confidence. and if voters re-elect you by however small a margin, even if the second go-around in 2020
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should be with a minority of the popular vote, we've got this set of rules, and if under those rules you win, then that says the american people liked what you did. now, does it mean they like what you did in an absolute sense, in an ideal world? no. they only like you better than the person you're running against. but that's the standard in every election. nobody gets to run sort of against, you know, nothing. you run against somebody else. and often votes are negative votes. we don't like the other scoundrel worse than this idiot. but, nonetheless if donald trump should get re-elected and gets a second term, then pretty much all of the changes that he's announced and changes to american foreign policy, changes to american domestic policy, those will have received the ratification of voters. and so then people like me will have to say, all right, something new and potentially permanent is going on.
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if for whatever reason he does not get a second term, if he runs and is defeated in the general election, if he's challenged in the primaries and loses, should he resign or be impeached and convicted. if he doesn't get a second term, then it will be entirely possible to say, okay, this was a one-time 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 attitudes or any number of things, presidents are less important for what they are than for what they represent. and one of the things they most represent is they are barometers of the political culture. i said before we get the presidents we deserve. and 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. and that is something that will
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be of lasting importance. so, if you ask me in december 2020, i will no longer be able to say too soon to tell. [ laughter ] please invite me]÷z back. but maybe let's make it, what will we say, april of 2021? [ laughter ] may, okay. thank you very much. you've been a wonderful audience. thav [ applause ] >> weeknights this month we're featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available every weekend on c-span3. tonight an evening of programs about the nation's fifth president james monroe. we start with a look at his relationship with george washington while the two men shared a bond forged in the revolutionary war, the politics drove a wedge between them. scott harris explains where things went wrong. watch tonight beginning at 8:00 p.m. eastern, and enjoy american history tv every weekend on c-span3.
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fiona deans halloran, author of "thomas nast: the father of modern political cartoons," and "salt lake tribune" editorial cartoonist pat bagley talk about the life and work of famous 19th century "harper's weekly" political cartoonist thomas nast. they discuss the political issues he engaged with and the symbols he popularized such as the democratic donkey, republican elephant, and santa claus. the massachusetts historical society hosted this event and provided the video. >> our program tonight is very much directly related to our online exhibition. i hope you all check it out if you have not done so already. it's a great show, and somehow incredibly relevant these days. this show was originally planned to be a physical show at the massachusetts historical society. and as a part of that physical show, we had intended to dedicate one room to thomas nast, the father of american political cartoons.


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