Comics-in-Chief: Laughing With (and At) the Presidents – The Growth of Democracy & the Flow of Humor

As the dust settles on the recent US presidential elections, the losing side is currently in retreat, posturing and postulating, full of recriminations and regrets in the inevitable post-mortem. However, lost within the list of explanations and excuses proffered—changing demographics, media bias, voter bribery, flip-flopping—has been a core perception omnipresent in the campaign ever since Mitt Romney fought off the last of his right-wing adversaries in the primaries: the Republican nominee was just not “likeable”! This factor does not suggest that Romney was overtly dislikeable, only that he failed to connect with the average citizen, failed to reveal the human being behind the politician, and, most importantly, failed to display any sense of humor. This latter criterion not only reflects upon the former ones, but it also speaks to issues of trust, credibility, and communication.

Subconsciously or not, voters ask these questions of the candidates: Who can I most relate to? Who is most down-to-earth? Who do I want speaking to me and for me over the next four years? Again and again, over the span of US history, the same answer has been given: voters want the candidate with the most natural sense of humor.

Of course, not all presidents have been comics-in-chief, and not all presidents have even valued humor as a desirable trait. Grover Cleveland, for example, said it was—and should be—“a solemn thing to be president of the United States”, while Jimmy Carter once proclaimed defensively, “If the American people wanted Bob Hope for their president, they should have elected him” (qtd. in Arthur A. Sloane. Humor in the White House: The Wit of Five American Presidents. N. Carolina: McFarland & Co. 2001. p.1).

Indeed, some presidents have regarded expressions of humor as demeaning and unbecoming of the office. Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, was openly critical of opponent Adlai Stevenson’s campaign trail quips, finding them, as Cleveland had before him, at odds with the necessary solemnity of the presidency. The New York Times summarized the Eisenhower camp’s position at the time, saying, “They hope the American people can be brought to resent these [quips] as a wisecracking approach to weighty affairs and the mark of an essentially frivolous man” (qtd. in Peter M. Robinson. The Dance of the Comedians: The People, the President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy in America. Boston: University of Mass. Press, 2010. p.125).

Despite the lack of evidence showing that an active sense of humor has cost a candidate the election, President Obama’s recent “Romnesia” jibe certainly had its share of critics, and some found his “horses and bayonets” line in the third presidential debate to be more mean-spirited than sharp-witted. While voters may not want a comedian as their leader of the free world, they clearly desire one that has an appropriate balance between the serious and the humorous. Moreover, this desire from constituents sometimes amounts to necessity for the politicians themselves. Harry Truman once said, “Any man who has had the job I’ve had and didn’t have a sense of humor wouldn’t still be here” (qtd. in Bob Dole. Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House. New York: Doubleday, 1998. p.58), and it is well known that Abraham Lincoln used humor for therapeutic purposes, to quell his periodic bouts of depression.

Whatever the purpose or motivation, a sense of humor in the White House has served positively some of its most popular inhabitants. “Greatest” and “worst” president surveys continue to reveal what is surely not just a coincidence: we have always and still continue to revere our wits in the White House. Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan are continually recognized not just as our greatest presidents but as our most humorous, too. Conversely, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter are commonly regarded as not only among our worst presidents but also our most humorless.

Author Carl Sandburg once called Abraham Lincoln “the first authentic humorist to occupy the executive mansion in Washington” (qtd. in Sloane. p.9), and as Steven Spielberg’s recent biopic reveals, Lincoln’s humor was conspicuous and consoling, even during the darkest days of the Civil War. Furthermore, despite the Victorian sobriety that drew a shadow of conservative restraint over his era, Lincoln tested the limits not only of acceptable presidential humor, but of public humor in general. Invariably, it seems, there was calculation to his regular comedic outpourings. For Lincoln, as for most of our beloved presidential wits, humor was deployed as a political strategy, as a functional tool for survival and success.

Renowned for his anecdotes, Lincoln told stories that endeared him to the common man, particularly to his plain rural constituents. He told stories that mocked powerful landowners, the rich barons of industry, even his political adversaries—casting each variously as elitist, out of touch, or lacking empathy. Of pro-slavery advocates he once slyly prodded, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally” (“Thoughts on Slavery”).

Lincoln drew upon techniques of earthy humor and country vernacular that he often borrowed from the joke books of the day and, in turn, books compiling Lincoln’s jokes soon became something of a cottage industry; e.g., H.J. Wehman’s Wit in the White House (1863) and Thomas R. Dawley’s Old Abe’s Jokes (1864). Casting his lot with the common folk and casting verbal stones at the powerful oppositional forces around him, Lincoln even gave a comedic spin to parables from The Bible that spoke to such concerns as greed, exploitation, or charity. Sometimes his pandering to the white rural classes led him down paths of comedy that would be deemed politically incorrect today. His parodies of black dialect were apparently as common as his stock Irish jokes, and his “love of the lewd”, as Arthur A. Sloane puts it, was reflected in many a bawdy tale (p.4).

In an age of political divisions that makes today’s state of the union appear positively harmonious, Lincoln used humor to get the general public on his side. Adopting a persona that appeared anti-elitist, he engendered good will and exhibited empathy for the struggling masses. This connectedness was attained via strategies that displayed both strength and self-effacement. Hecklers were sent into retreat with his go-to retort, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”, while criticisms of his political honesty were often deflected with comedic distractions. “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” the strikingly unhandsome president once rhetorically asked (“Thoughts on Slavery”).

Just as President Lincoln played with a persona in ways that sometimes amounted to pseudo class slumming, so some of the professional wits of the day did likewise. Ironically, though, they often used their down-to-earth humor in order to mock the very political classes of which Lincoln was the figurehead. Most famous of these comedians was Maine newspaper man, Charles F. Browne, better known in his alter-ego guise of Artemus Ward.

More mischievous than malicious, the Ward character gently chastised the president whenever his policies appeared to serve against the interests of the common folk. Employing the popular “Down East” humor of the day, Artemus Ward, like Lincoln, used anecdotes as his primary genre of communication. However, it was his linguistic extravagance that separated him from the president’s more restrained class affectations. Ward’s wit came courtesy of being a half-wit caricature, and his home truths were homespun and homely. Somewhere between idiot and idiot savant, Ward mixed metaphors, misquotations, and malapropisms into performance pieces whose sonic charms betrayed veiled critiques. Vernacular constructs of fiction such as “Interview with President Lincoln” prefigure the kind of caricature humor we see today from the likes of Stephen Colbert and Saturday Night Live. Such pieces caught the eye and the affirmation of not only Lincoln himself, but of the whole country too, which waited enthusiastically for his every weekly briefing.

Peter M. Robinson calls Charles F. Browne’s oral-based monologues the “genesis of political comedy performance in American” (p.16), though there were some forerunners mining comparable comedic territories. One of these was Seba Smith. Like Browne, Smith was a journalist from Maine who used his newspaper forum to carve out a political entertainment spot. Like Browne, too, Smith operated through a “rube” persona, in his case Major Jack Downing. A (mock) philosopher for the everyman citizen, Downing tested political policies against his own basic reasoning and personal experiences—to critical effect.

What Lincoln was to Artemus Ward, Andrew Jackson was to Jack Downing in the 1830s: his comedic muse and foil. In one series of skits Downing uproots and goes to Washington. There he becomes advisor to President Jackson and a member of his “kitchen cabinet”, offering up his characteristic common sense on myriad concerns of the day, exposing in the process all kinds of political corruption and malfeasance. An equivalent to the “wise fools” of medieval times, as well as to more recent political simpleton-savants like Jerzy Kozinski’s Chauncey Gardiner and Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith, Downing’s commentaries provide profound insights into the flawed machinery and crooked machinations of government.

Increasing industrialization throughout the 19th century transformed the nation and its landscape, as well as its political humor. Although the formula of the common man set against upper class establishment figures proved enduring in providing comedic scenarios, the reliance on specifically rural and backwoods types gradually waned, increasingly replaced by working class urbanites more reflective of the expanding cities with their diverse immigrant make-up. Finley Peter Dunne, a newspaper man like Smith and Browne, combined the brogue of the Irish immigrant with the customary cracker-barrel humor of the era. Through his South-Side Chicago alter-ego of bartender Martin Dooley, Dunne gave voice to the large but theretofore largely voiceless urban proletariat. And while Dunne sometimes used this voice to mock the affectations and moneyed affiliations of Theodore Roosevelt, T.R., in turn, not only took note of Mr. Dooley’s amusing musings, but also sought to capitalize off of his new imaginary adversary.

Dooley skits ran regularly in the Chicago Evening Post (where Dunne served as chief editorial writer), and while they primarily served as entertainment pieces for comic relief, there was often a sting in Dooley’s off-the-cuff opinions, suggesting that this caricature was also a sly advocate for the kind of reforms and “muckraking” popular in much of the watchdog journalism of the time. Sometimes Dooley got personal, speaking truth to power, as when he ridiculed Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizing in the then-presidential aspirant’s war-mongering book, The Rough Riders(1899).

Roosevelt, who had spent many years carving out a swaggering image, joyously embraced Dooley’s characterizations, even if they were intended to be put-downs. Once president, T.R. was even known to read Dooley monologues aloud and in their entirety during Cabinet meetings. Dooley, by the turn of the century recognized as a representative spokesperson for the common folk, functioned as an important gauge of public opinion on pressing issues, as well as a conscience figure alerting T.R. whenever he strayed from his treasured political identity as a fighter for the downtrodden.

Nineteenth century political humor boasted its first literary celebrity in Samuel L. Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. Twain brought presidential humor to the center of America’s national stage, and he did so by drawing upon many of the already established comedic methods. Employing caricatures of the commoner telling meandering tall tales—like Browne, Smith, and Dunne—Twain crafted a raucous heartland humor via voices speaking in semi-literate regional vernacular. For Twain, though, this style of anecdotal writing was not merely an on-the-side journalistic excursion; it was, for him, America’s distinct contribution to world literature. “To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities is the basis of American art”, he opined in his 1895 essay, “How to Tell a Story” (From Selected Shorter Writings of Mark Twain. Walter Blair (ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. p.241).

Like Dunne, Twain took issue with the gross economic inequities of the late 19th century, famously (and sarcastically) coining the era “the gilded age” in 1893. Greed and graft were rife in the political system, he argued, such that nine percent of Americans owned 71 percent of the nation’s wealth. Were he around today, Twain would no doubt be speaking in harmony with the “One Percenter” critics of recent years. Elsewhere, the satirist’s offensive was equally attuned to the nation’s unbridled power overseas, and he was an outspoken and persistent critic of the US’s rampant imperialism. In response to President McKinley declaring war on the Philippines, Twain helped found the Anti-Imperialist League; America was behaving no worse than the British in their colonizing rampages, charged Twain, who tagged the two nations with the phrase, “the kith and kin of war and sin” (qtd. in Robinson. p.47).

Some regard the second half of the 19th century as a golden age of political humor; concurrently, this period also saw the evolving of the republic in opening up new channels for representative voices. This flow of humor, with its many tributaries of expression, reflected the growing democracy and the multi-faceted roles humor could play within it. Whether to endear, empathize, enlighten, or chastise, political humorists of the 19th century pushed national discourse out of the corridors of power and established it front-and-center on the public stage, establishing precedents and practices that future humorists would dramatically develop upon in subsequent generations.