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Great Presidential Wit (i Wish I Was in the Book)

Bob Dole

(Touchstone Books)

Unwittingly Without Wit

One of things that really impress you about the law students at State University, Carolina, is how facile these kids are with the language.  Most of them have political ambitions, and most politicians live and die by their use of language. Being quick witted is a fundamental survival tool.  In general, then, presidents should be silver-tongued devils, and we should find their wit and witticism awe-inspiring. 


To this end, Bob Dole, a former Viagra salesman, has thrown together a collection of anecdotes and quotations attributed to our past presidents that for some reason he finds funny.  If you had your doubts about Dole before, this will only confirm the worst of them.  All in all, it is horridly disappointing and Touchstone Books is to be thoroughly chastised for wasting so much paper.  It is another example of corporate America’s total disregard for the environment.


In an introduction where Dole asserts his disdain for professors, scholars, intellectuals and others who would dare to analyze the records of past administrations, Dole ranks our various presidents from funniest to humorless. In the process, he gives us examples of presidential wit and hints of what are to come.  Lincoln, who indeed produced quotable quotes by the trainload, read his cabinet some incomprehensible gobbledygook and, getting no response, admonishes them, “If I didn’t laugh, I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”   Dole doesn’t tell us what kind of response that got, but one can imagine some concern in the cabinet for Abe’s stress tolerance.


Dole then goes on to gives us quotes from all the presidents from the funniest to the sternest, Lincoln to Millard Fillmore, and ends with quotes from Bush II and Gore who were “waiting in the wings” when Dole was writing.  If you suspect the arrangement makes the book go from bad to worse, you wouldn’t be terribly wrong.  Dole gives us no documentation with these quotes, which is something that Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations at least does.  One suspects, in fact, that one of Dole’s aids was assigned the task of pulling these quotes out of standard sources like Bartlett’s and assembling them.


Lifted out of context, many of the quotes simply don’t make sense.  Following the Senate’s censure of McCarthy, Ike quipped, “McCarthyism is now McCarthywasm.”  Spoken, the line might be good; read it leaves a lot to be desired.   Those that do make sense aren’t always that funny, and some are down right arrogant and insulting.  John Adams tells us that “Men find Ways to persuade themselves to believe any Absurdity, to submit to any Prostitution, rather than forgo their Wishes and Desires” and that Boston Town Meetings and Harvard College had set the universe in motion.  Princeton maybe, but Harvard? They can’t even play a decent game of football. Harding says, “I don’t know anything about this European stuff.”  My word, that’s hilarious.  And oh so reassuring.  Bush I admits that, “Fluency in the English language is something I’m not accused of.”  This is simply a statement of fact similar to the observation that the sun rises in the East.


Many, too, are old and badly shopworn.  Dole has Gore, or more likely Dole’s speech writer, tell the one about the problem with jokes about lawyers: lawyers don’t think they’re funny and nobody else thinks they’re jokes. When Julius Caesar first told that one at the Forum, a bunch of the Back Benchers stabbed him to death.   Reagan tells the one about the Russian so sick of standing in line he goes off to shoot Gorbachev only to return with the observation that that line was even longer.  A real hoot and by the time RR told it, it was already worn out on every primary school playground in North Carolina.


All in all, this book is not very good.  Neither is it very interesting.  Worse yet, it is not honest.  It’s too bad since someone, notably one of Dole’s much detested eggheads with a flair for historical analysis and the will to spend a little time in a good library, could have produced a very entertaining volume. This one certainly isn’t.  Bob Dole’s next literary effort should be to explain how these guys are any improvement over divine-right monarchs because I certainly left this book wondering.


If it comes to you free, Wit would make a prominent and useful addition to your outhouse’s library.  Otherwise there is no reason to bother with it unless you are collecting evidence that our politicians are truly half-witted.

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