tv The Presidency Humor in the White House CSPAN February 24, 2019 8:00pm-9:11pm EST
from george washington to donald trump. he considers how funny our chief executives have been or not and whether they used humor to their advantage. the center for presidential studies, the gerald r. ford it's just over an hour. >> i'm going to be talking about, well, sort of humor in the white house. and as i was thinking of this title, i realize, uh-oh, this is a potential problem. because i was really talking about the president and jokes and humor. and i know enough about the history of the presidency and caught you will perhaps up on this there was a potential problem there. there were two presidents that served before the white house was the official residence for the presidency. if i wanted to say humor in the white house didn't quite do it.
but then i thought about it some more and actually it does work because neither of the first two presidents had a sense of humor. [laughter] so it gets me out of that problem. but i'm going to follow the lead of perhaps the most successful humanorist in the white house. it might not be the person that you're thinking of by doing things what he did at the beginning of a talk. he started with a joke. now, again, some of you will have heard this joke but pretend you haven't heard it before and laugh at the appropriate point. this is the key to my story that ronald reagan used to tell. and the key is, i shall see, ronald reagan was telling the 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 became a politician. -- a period an between basically after he stopped getting calls from hollywood producers. he couldn't get any good rolls. between when his career ended and his political career -- his film career and his political career began. and he had, well, a rather unusual position. job that was a invented for him by the general electric. it 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 is in the 1950's. and nobody knows quite what to
do with tv. what you do with to tell vision camera is you film plays and 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 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. and he would find himself because reagan in that phase of his life was afraid to fly. and he had written into his contract that he would not fly. and so he traveled by train across the country. and he would go through small towns and very often he would find himself addressing the local rotary club or the alps or the chamber of commerce. and he would find himself in these small towns because people
didn't know who he was. he was never famous. he was sort of the b-list actor as jack warner -- his boss at warner bros. said when he heard that reagan was running for governor of california in the 1960's. he said no, no, jimmy stewart for governor and reagan for best friend. that was the kind of role he played. he's this relative nonentity. and he's going through these rather obscure towns and giving these standard talks. so the story that regan told went like this. he was about to give a talk in some small town in the midwest. and he doesn't know the people he's been speaking to that's been lined out by his publicity agent. one of the locals, the program director, we'll call it the elks is going to introduce regan. but the thing is that the
program director isn't familiar with ronald reagan. and he simply sees the printed amplingts-n-a-l-d. and he's suppose to introduce him. but the problem is that he doesn't know how the last name r -e-a-g-a-n. prow nounsed. it could be reagan, it could be reagan. ople of irish back grounds pronounce it both ways. today, you can go on youtube and hear how it was pronounced. this guy is pretty conscientious. he doesn't want to embarrass his guest or his group. so he's trying to figure out how he's going to resolve this problem, how he's going to discover how the name was pronounced. so he's deep in thought on the morning before the talk.
he's walking around like this. the neighbor is out walking his dog. so the dog -- he actually trips over the dog. and he goes oh. and the neighbor says well, joe, boy, you really look like you're worried, what's going on? so he pulls out the program and he said you ever heard of this guy? how do i pronounce his name? oh, he's ronald reagan. he used to be an actor. and joe says so you sure it's reagan. oh, boy, thanks. you lifted a huge load off of my shoulders. he repeats himself. reagan, reagan, reagan. as he's walking back he again trips over the dog. and he looks down, says that's a cute dog.
what kind of dog is it? a bagel. [laughter] so this is ronald reagan's approach. and it characterizes sort of a 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, 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. reagan covered that if there's an audience that doesn't know you, if there's an up and audience might be kept cal about the message you're conveying, if you can get them to laugh it loosens them up. it makes them feel like they're
a real person. it worked for regan as governor. for reagan as president of the united states. and it 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 gleaves the topic that i was going to speak about tonight, i thought about it. i happened to be teaching last month, i teach this course every other year. it's the course on a history of the presidency. it's standard for me to begin the course with, i put up on the screen like this, i put and imagine, an illustration in this case a portrait, 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.
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 is to do on their final exam. how do we get from george washington to george w. bush. how do we get from george washington to barack obama. how do we get from george washington to donald trump? one of the striking things is if you go to george washington to most presidents before the current president, you see a kind of linear progression. now, some people would think that it's the climb, that the curb slopes 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 rear-view 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 usualy pretty 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 with 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 19993.
he used to think if he could have run for a third run, they would have won. they fool themselves because by 1960, the democrats had no incentive to go after dwight eisenhower. they were focusing all their fire on the next one, richard nixon. the republicans in 2000 had no particular reason to go after bill clinton anymore. he got a free pass. they were aiming their guns at al gore. this popularity and how presidents look better in the rear-view mirror is due to the fact that nobody is sniping at them anymore. while they're in office, everybody is and you learn all the bad things of them in office. the clearest assertion of presidential decline was henry adams who was an observer of presidents from the -- where well, he was the grandson of john adams and the grandson of john quincy adams. henry adams he had problems. and the adams family was in this
state of political decline where there were two adams presidents in their background. but henry adams couldn't make even a start in politics. henry adams became a very distinguished historian. when he was writing in the 1870's 1860's and early when youly sys grant was theident and this was after publication of the introduction of the theory of evolution. he thought that anybody who looks at the progression of the presidency from george washington to youly sys grant understands that evolution is a crock. it utterly refutes the theory. anyway -- i was going to say that in most cases it looks as though there's this linear line, there's this line that maybe you think you think it goes down or goes up.
there's a striking thing. i'm going to propose this to you. there is one sense at least in which donald trump is positively and this is an adjective that i haven't heard applied to donald trump. hat 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 hat particular characteristic? 603, that's not too bad. 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. but it's part of american historical lore. you know the story about george washington and the cherry tree. and how his father said who chopped down the cherry tree.
he said i can't tell a lie, i chopped it down. we had this thing that george lie. gton couldn't tell a i don't think it's true. he could not tell a joke. [laughter] he couldn't tell a joke or maybe he wouldibility laugh at a joke. 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 maxim's 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.
these are words that he came to live by. now, i really don't know if in his private life, george washington, 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 only good authority about george washington at the constitutional convention. this is before he's president. but he's actually president of the convention. and he is this austere figure. he's the commander of the continental army. he won the revolutionary war and therefore the independence of the united states. he's pre siding over the constitutional convention. he was chosen because he was this straight laced sober-minded individual. you make him president and the presiding officer and that gives him an excuse not to. but some of the other members in
the convention, one in particular, gubinear morris who lived different times in new york and pennsylvania and he was a delegate from the convention to pennsylvania and he was very much a hail 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 lost his leg in the revolutionary war. it was a battle injury. the other story that was told that s that he injured himself diving out of the bedroom window of one of his lovers just at the moment that her was returning home. and it was badly inyou are jurisdiction and it had to be amputated. governor morris wanted this convention to be well, not quite as somber as it seemed to be. so he made a bet with some of this friends including alexander hamilton led the other side. and hamilton knew washington
better than morris did. and so he -- he made this bet that he could actually loosen up george washington. he said what do you want the wager to be? he said the finest dinner for a dozen of each of our friendsle if i win, then you treat us. if you win, i treat you. so he goes up to george washington and this is a break in the gathering. and he slaps george washington on his shoulder. puts his arm around. he said george, how 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. and that's the kind of person americans wanted as their president in the early days of the republic in what i call the awe gus tan age of the american - agustan age, from george washington up to john quincy adams before the united states became a democracy, a system in which president actually exercised political power. ordinary people did not elect george washington. ordinary people did not even elect the electors who chose george washington. according to the constitution, you'll read that each state shall select electors. it doesn't say how.
they get to choose how. until the 1820's, most state legislatures chose the electors not the voters in that state. and in that era americans expected the 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 governor morris because it really served his purposes to be this one who held apart from everybody else. because that's what americans wanted. the presidency was a serious undertaking. and the idea that you're president should have a sense of humor, to laugh and laugh, and 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 to tell jokes really other than andrew jackson. even with andrew jackson it's a little bit hard to find anything that looks like modern humor. and i -- i -- i took up this subject understanding that conveying jokes or humor from the past to the present is a ifficult undertaking because writing about music is like dancing to architecture. it's a little bit like that. to translate -- you'll see. to translate humor from the past to the prent, something is lost in the translation is lost. you looked like a learned audience. so i think you're going to be able to get this one.
andrew jackson is the first popularly elected president. he's the one that 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. he idea that this unlettered werner, this uncouth mill tarrist should be president of the united states was something they had a hard time getting their head around. and john quincy adams who was defeated by jackson 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 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 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 decenters on the faculty and they decided, ok. 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 intellectuals in the academy. and so without telling the president of the university whose reputation was on the line, sure, i'll be happy to seak on this occasion -- speak on this occasion. 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 he would be so embarrassed that he would be humiliated and he would be shown up. and that would be the end of it. now, as i say with 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 it didn't like. and jackson was asserting, no, the union is central.
the union must hold. so this is the background. everybody was waiting what the president was going to say. this became a fairly common thing for presidents and other distinguished members of the government. the marshall plan was announced in a harvard commencement address. so he's going to give this announcement on the current state and he's going to deal with attempt by the harvard faculty to embarrass him. so jackson stands up. oonan, ays, e pleuribis sinaquanon. enough of you know latin to get the jock. but anyway that's the best i got from a joke from jackson. and i have to confess, i have to confess that that story is probably somewhat exaggerated.
it's in the nature of jackson wasn't 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. really was considered sort of le majestique. but with jackson things are fair game. the office of 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, 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.
in politicszed that when you have jokes, jokes often have a target, the person who they're being joked about or teased. and lincoln understood that in democratic 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 towards them. if you tell a joke about yourself, the first thing happens is that 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 whereby the 20th century,
certainly by the second half of the century, if you had to figure out who is going to win any given election, you can look at political platforms and you can look at others things. but the most reliable single indicator is what you could generically call a likeability index. which of the candidates would you rather sit down and have a beer with? if there's a clear difference, that candidate is likely to win. well, with lincoln this business of likeability, we see it for the first time in lincoln really needs to make himself likable. he also did have a certain wit. not everyone is blessed with the kind of wit that can sort of turn a particular situation in a humanorist direction. but there was -- this is a story told about lincoln. but you'll see that lincoln has a punch line. so lincoln before he went into politics and after his sow journ was a practicing lawyer.
and lawyers in bringfield, illinois to make a living had to ride the circuit with judges. there was all sorts of people that were lawyers. they could start young and hang on until they were old. and lincoln had a lawyer friend or maybe a lawyer away tense who -- an away tense. this guy was having a trial. he was conducting a trial. he was one of the attorneys in the trial. 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. he got in a wrestling match just during the lunch break with this other guy, this towns person. and they are wrestling and rolling around in the ground. and this guy rips his pants, and so he -- then he -- ok. the judge is back. the trial continues. and he stands up before the
court and as he 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. he just said, he 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 new republican party, lincoln began as a wig. but the wig party declined and it was replaced by the
republican party. and the republicans held their first convention in bloomington, illinois. and lincoln attended. he wasn't that well known. 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've ever seen. and lincoln said well, i responded -- what could i say? well, this is the way god made me. and i -- sorry but i don't have an excuse for that. ok. but the least you could have done is stayed home. so on another occasion lincoln sort of what shall i say lampooned his appearance when one of his political opponents . scribed him as two-faced
lincoln said two faced? you've got to be kidding. you think if i had another one i would use this one? he 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 he 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. lincoln was all in favor of a speedy and lenient reconstruction. but he was -- he had to have sort of some policy about what to do with confederate leaders. he was asked, mr. president,
what shall we do? mr. president, it brings me in mind this baptist 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 gram of whiskey once a day. and the baptists 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 good slip out of the
country unbeknownst to me, then much of our problem would go away. the institution of the presidency changed dramatically at the end of the 19th century, in the beginning of the 20th century through the 19th century, the president and the presidency were not at the center of american political life. they were not expected to be. by the constitution congress 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 really of 19th century presidents that people remembered. andrew jackson. abraham lincoln, 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 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 history in the 20th century about dwight eisenhower's presidency. so there's go to be a lot on foreign policy. it's got to be a chapter on foreign policy. but there's not much of foreign policy. it's only in the 20th century when the united states has a full-time foreign policy and then the president has to take charge. the president is commander in chief of the armed forces and he's the defactor dim plow matic chief of foreign policies. it's in the 20th century where the president takes center stage where it remains. and so the presidency rewarded
people who had these big personalities, these people -- the kind of people who would args your attention. -- first president didn't that fit that role was theodore roosevelt. he did take up all the air in the room when he came in. and his daughter who had some of this in herself and knew her father very well said, if you want to understand my father he has to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. has to theodore roosevelt. maybe this isn't so odd given that sort of personality, but roosevelt -- roosevelt could not appreciate jokes told at his expense. he never -- roosevelt himself didn't tell jokes. but most presidents eventually would go get 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 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 had to fauxment 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. and so after he gave this long explanation as to why it needed to be done and the right terms. his commander general said, mr. president, really you should not let sish such a great
accomplishment be tainted by any legality. roosevelt didn't laugh. the other members of the cabinet did. 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 had a field day with roosevelt because he had features that were easily caricature. he had the glasses, the mustache. he was full of himself and bully and delighted. and there were various cartoonists who would skewer roosevelt. and roosevelt either to his credit or to his shrewdness would respond by writing a letter to the cartoonists, the person who wrote the cartoon and said, oh, i got a great laugh out of it, which he didn't. and 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. the presidency would continue to evolve and the biggest evolution of the presidency as it relates to this question of humor and how president's portray themselves is the development of the mass media. roosevelt and those edtory 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. 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. this also vibts to the rise of the president as the center of american politics. reports can with great difficulty can tell stories of a large group like congress. it's only with great difficulty. it's only tempting for reporters to tell their story about a single individual. if you have a charismatic and arresting individual like roosevelt, then it's easy to tell stories about. and so as the expectations change as the technology changes, the system selects for those characteristics as an aside. it's not really an aside. one of the principles that i gradually infered from when i studied the presidency is sort of for better or for worse 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 best method anybody's come up with for selecting presidents basically have this vote. we can argue about the electoral college. that's one of those that falls into the category, that it didn't exist, nobody would invent it today. but it does exist and this is where we are today. once these expectations develop for president, presidents adapt themselves 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 a consequence of the depth 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 i became president. and harry truman was a really unlikely president. he was a creature of one of the last urban political machines, the pinder graph machine in kansas city. and he was known primarily known as a political hack. but he was loyal to franklin roosevelt. and roosevelt needed a new vice presidential running mate 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 presidents and also how our presidents and their running mates are chosen. whoever gets the nomination of the party gets to choose often without consulting anybody else. consider sara palin or even dan quayle without telling anybody else this is my choice. that was not the case for most of american history. most americans, the presidents
were told this is going to be your running mate because of the leaders of the party had the interest 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, you got to get rid of your current vice president henry wallace. it was clear that he was not in good health. there was this real concern especially amongst conservative democrats that they would die in office and leave wallace the last of the hard core new dealers as president of the united states. and so they threatened a mutiny at the 1944 convention. he said get that guy from kansas city. he hardly met harry truman. anyway. so truman becomes president. he says he's going to be the straight talking guy. he did hold press conferences. this is 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 permission. when harry truman would hold press conferences he would tell you something or other and reporters would have to say, can we quote you on that? now we live in this age of utter transparency. if a president even says inadvertently it's considered fair game. truman discovered that there were limits on his candor when he was thinking aloud saying in the middle of the creanl war, -- korean war, maybe we'll use nuclear weapons. can we quote you? yeah, you can quote me. and the world was alarmed that there's going to be this nuclear war. truman doesn't have much in the way of quotable jokes. but i'm going to share a story with you. this is truman, once he got out of the white house, he discovered that he could be freer with what he was saying.
i have a very good friend who lives in austin who grew up in kansas city. he grew up in kansas city in the 1950's. and he recalled visiting the truman library. the second of the presidential library after the franklin roosevelt library. 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 several blocks from the library, had an office in the library. and every morning he would get up and he would walk to the library. truman the last president not to have a college degree but he prided himself on this knowledge
because he read a lot. truman liked to show off on history. my friend greg still shakes his head. so greg says, the president kiddies,nd he said ok, i have 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's a committee that deals with our relation with other countries. now, in the house of representative, 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. [laughter] anyway. goodlooked -- i looked for jokes told by dwight eisenhower. dwight eisenhower is a pretty straight ahead guy. and the best i could come up with is eisenhower's definition of an atheist. you know what his definition of an atheist is? it's something who goes to a football game where notre dame plays s.m.u. and he doesn't care who wins. [laughter] i'm running out of time. so i'm going to tell you -- i've got to tell you a story about lyndon johnson. i've got a couple more reagan stories i could tell you. i'll tell you about lyndon johnson. and this is one -- lyndon johnson -- it's not clear that lyndon johnson had much of a
sense of humor. stories were told about lyndon johnson rather than stories told by lyndon johnson. but here's one that captures 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 candidates incipled are two one from massachusetts and from pennsylvania. the two of them are in the green room ahead of this debate. debate. bout to have a they're sitting in the green room. and they're smaking small talk. -- making small talk. and kennedy says, stewart, i have to tell you
something. in my dream god reached down from heaven and tapped me on the oulder 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? kennedy.t looks at simmington is this tall square-jawed guy with this great mane of white hair. and he looks at the much younger kennedy. 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, stew, for your long and faithful service, you are going to be rewarded. you will win the democratic nomination. you will be the next president f the united states. so simington looks at kennedy and looks at johnson. johnson looks at the other two. when i tell this story to my students in austin where the johnson library is located, i ask them, how many of you have been to the lyndon johnson library, which is there? any of you been by the lyndon johnson library? it's unusual among presidential library in greeting you before you go in is a life size that chew of lyndon johnson. i invite my students to do this especially for those who have ideas of a career in politics. one of the things to determine
whether you might be good in this career is to measure yourself against people who do that occupation. if you think you want to be a teacher, follow a teacher around. a lawyer or doctor. see what they do on a daily basis. so i tell my students, go over there. stand in front of that statue. look lyndon johnson in the eye and see how you measure up. one of the reasons i tell them this is that the statue of johnson is very life-like. and some of you will have a mental image of lyndon johnson. but he had an unusually large head. and he had really big ears. nd 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 shake a bit and the
waves would go in the jowls an this is what he said. i he said, stewart, jack, 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. ok. 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 babb. >> obviously "saturday night president a lot of stuff. >> i'll repeat it it. what do i think of "saturday night live"? >> what do you think is the best -- [indiscernible] >> that's a really hard question
to answer in any way that will get general assent. so a lot of it depends on how much you dislike the president. because "saturday night live" which started airing during the presidency of gerald ford. and gerald ford was the first victim of "saturday night live." and "saturday night live" really did change the context for presidential humor. because it was the first regularly scheduled satire spoof on presidents. and in a certainly sense it was equal opportunity caricaturist and cartoonist. it didn't matter what the characteristics of what the president were. their business was to getzlafs 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. and so gerald ford -- jorled ford was quite unfairly lampooned, but in fact, lampooned are unfair. in ford's case it was an entirely mischaracterization. so chevy chase was part of the original cast of "saturday night live." 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 a stumble bum, when, in fact, ford was one of 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 have been a waste of time. so he basically grinned and bore
ed it. i don't remember exactly the context where he had a chance to make a little bit of a comeback. 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 similar occasion. and -- 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 said, and you chevy chase are a very funny suburb. but i will tell you for my money, for my money, the best presidential "saturday night live" connection is one that
goes full circle with dana carvey and george h.w. bush. so dana carvey became famous for his characterization of bush. and bush is sometimes telegraphic style of speech. and while bush was president, he -- you know, he would smile and 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 service. i got to meet him. he would come to my classes. 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 -- 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 students at texas. closed door in a sense that the press was not allow. and one of the things that presidents often have a hard time with and george h.w. bush really had this problem. he had to act presidential. so he often came around as wood. lyndon johnson had the same problem. but once he knew there were no reporters in the room an there were no cameras, he could sort of let himself go. and he did an imitation of dana carvey imitating himself. and i have to tell you, this audience of students -- these were undergraduates. 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 comedian.
so that's what i remember about "saturday night live" and presidents. other questions? reactions? yes, ok. >> so circling back to your initial -- talk about the president, this president and george washington, i'm assuming it's lack of humor that's the similar characteristics. so could you expound on that a little bit? >> yeah, one of the things about president trump is his -- what shall i say is his lack of an observable sense of humor. and not any attempts to fake it. i would have said before president trump was elected -- i would have said a lot of things -- i had very different expectations about changes in the presidency. d i sort soft -- sort of thought that they were unrollable backable. but every president really from about -- well, definitely from john kennedy or you can say earlier than that had to at
least fake a sense of humor. sometimes it's laughing at jokes people told about you. sometimes it's about telling jokes yourself. and so presidents would do this sort of thing. and i assumed -- and 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 stereo type however false this stereo type might be. in one of his last speeches before the national corns club where presidents for a long time they would give their, sort of their johnny carson jay leno sort of monologue sort of thing. and obama in 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, oh, yeah, those days when i was a strapping young muslim socialist. [laughter] but donald trump has definitely took a different route to the white house. and i'm not -- 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's less similarity between the individuals trump and jackson than there is in the people who voted for them. in both cases, it was a >> the people who voted for
jackson against john adams were of the same mindset that voted for trump clinton.ary was the outsider, i didn't i was is surprising, as welld that it worked as it did. but i was surprised, that, until has not been ll any effort to broaden the base chose him and i don't trump has -- know if it's a deliberate decision or he just operates on gut instinct. it got him to the white house so can't say it's not worth anything but he seems to be with appealing to his base. ot trying much to broaden the
base, and he holds rallies. this is something no president did. in fact, few candidates have hold the kind of rallies, but rallies of holdings after being elected is something brand-new. and the point of the rallies be to keep stoking that dissatisfaction with the status quo. ronald reagan did it to a certain degree after four years as president. reagan tried to run as the anti-establishment candidate. it off it'scan pull great but it's hard to pull it off after you've been at the of the establishment as president. new 't know if this is a model. president trump has been able to accomplish what he's been able observablesh with no sense of humor. now, again, i don't know if he's tells his jokes to families or other people but he seems to make at least so far little or no effort to do
president. now, is this something new or an aberration? asked about the meaning of he trump presidency fairly often. my answer is to take the historian's dodge and say it's tell.arly to as i like to say, historians can a long way.ith that [laughter] >> so edward gibbon, who wrote a six volume history of the empire and fall of roman which was published in the late 1700s, describing events that happened a thousand years before. once asked what is the last significance to rome? you know what he said? too soon to tell. but i can give you a date, a on which it will be no longer too soon to tell and day 2020.ection is, the reason i say this
a t presidents who make lasting mark on the american political system, who are ranks of nto the really important presidents are presidents whose get re-elected. the presidents for whom voters a chance to vote on their performance, presidents get first time on the promise, and promise is one thing. persuasive promiser but it doesn't always pay off and maybe you don't deliver on promises, you change your mind or something. so i'm not going to say that elected on the promise, but you can get elected on promises and not follow through. you get reelected on the performance. president who puts himself, until now, puts himself p for re-election, basically, is asking for, well, in the british context this would be a
of confidence. f voters re-elect you by however small a margin, even if the second go around in 2020 minority of the popular vote, we've got this set of rules and if under those you win, then that says he american people liked what you did. now, does it mean they like what the absolute sense? in an ideal world, they only the person ter than you're running against but that's the standard in every election. to run against, you know, nothing, you run against somebody else and often votes votes.ative we don't like the other scoundrel worse than this idiot nonetheless, if donald trump should get reelected and get a pretty much all of the changes that that he's nnounced, and changes to american foreign policy, changes to american domestic policy,
will receive the ratification of voters. haveen people like me will to say, all right, something new nd potentially permanent is going on. if for whatever reason he does ot get a second term, if he runs and is defeated in the eneral election, should he resign or be impeached and convicted, if he doesn't get a then it will be entirely possible to say, okay, thing.as a one-time and it represents the state of mind of voters at this particular moment. me, whether it has o do with humor, attitudes or any number of things, presidents are less important for what they than for what they represent, and one of the things hey most represent is they are barometers of the political culture. as i said before we get the presidents we deserve. and if voters say we like this
it goes on,tion and then there will have been this effective change of mind in the culture and tical the american electorate and something that will be of lasting importance. so if you ask me in december 2020, i'll no longer be able to say, too soon to tell. back but maybe let's make it what should we 2021.april may. okay. very good. thank you very much. ou've been a wonderful udience, thank you all for coming. minutes in [captions copyright national cable satellite corp 2019] >> our weekly series exploring is, politics and legacies. you're watching american history tv. on weekend, every weekend, c-span 3. *-
> monday night talking about the opposition to the t-mobile merger. joined by the executive senior editor of communications daily. it's a very bad idea. t will destroy about 30,000 jobs in the united states for a company vernment owned and a japanese billionaire why theand we don't see german government or japanese billionaire should seek to make american off american jobs but what that merger will do. watch "the communicators," on ay night at 8:00 eastern c-span 2. american history tv is on c-span featuring museum tours, archival films and presidency. the civil war and more.
here's a recent clip. interested in 's talking to us, when thatcher had gone to washington right before christmas, after the visit, she had said to him, you know, he's in opening up markets. he's interested in reforming communism. let's not forget, he's trying to fix it and strengthen it. push reminds reagan, don't gucchi d by this comrade. he may look stylish and western communist. okay? because the temptation, as we've other fore, with countries, is to assume that a to democratize,
to that's not what he wants do. >> stream the ipod anywhere, any time. you're watching american history on c-span 3. c-span, in 1979, created as a public service by america's cablevision companies. today we continue to bring you un unfiltered coverage from ashington, d.c. and around the country. your cable or by satellite provider. the early 1900, james shepard, florida a&m professor washingtonor between and dubois, racial politics of
james edward shepard. recorded at view the annual american historical association meeting, he talked shepard's involvement in education and politics. his impact on north carolina, how he navigated the jim era. this is about 20 minutes. >> reginald ellis, professor at florida a&m university, let's talk about this gentleman, the racial politics of james edward shepard, who was he? >> dr. shepard was an individual who was born and raised of a