tv The Presidency Humor in the White House CSPAN March 9, 2019 6:50pm-8:01pm EST
presidential politics. from george washington to donald trump, he considers how funny our chief executives have been, or not, and whether they abused humor to their advantage. fordhe gerald r. presidential library and museum cohosted this event. it is just over an hour. >> i am going to be talking about humor in the white house. as i was thinking of this title, i realized, this is a potential problem because i was really talking about the president and jokes and humor, and i know enough about history of the presidency, and some of you perhaps will have caught on to this, there is a potential problem there. copresidentsose who served before the white house was the official residence of the president. if i wanted to say, well the presidency in humor, humor in
the white house did not quite do it. but then i thought about it some more, and actually, it does work. neither of the first two presidents had a sense of humor. [laughter] >> so it gets me out of that problem. i am going to follow the lead of perhaps the most successful humorist in the white house, by doing what he always did or in most cases what he did at the beginning of a talk. he started with a joke. may haveme of you heard this joke, but please laugh at the appropriate points. this is a joke and this is a key to part of my story. ronald reagan used to tell it. the key is as you will see ronald reagan was effectively telling this story on himself. it related to a time in his career when he did not knows for
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. period between, after he stopped getting calls from hollywood producers. any good rolest and between when his career ended, and his political career began. and he had a rather unusual position. it was a job that was invented for him by the general electric corporation. greatl electric was the industrial of the american economy. and reagan was there paid spokesman. he was a television host for the ge theater and the ge theater was an experiment in television. this is in the 1950's.
nobody knows quite what to do with tv, so they think, what you do with a television camera is you film a play and then people just watch plays on tv. reagan was the host. in as not the star, he was couple of these but he mostly just introduced of them and in the show went on. that is what he would do on weekends. during the week, he would travel the country giving speeches on behalf of general electric. and the glories of electricity. because find himself reagan in that phase of his life was afraid to fly. he had written into his contract that he would not fly, so he traveled by train across the country. townsld go through small and very often, he would find himself addressing the local rotary club, or the chamber of commerce, as he used to call this the rubber chicken circuit.
he would find these a small towns where people did not know who he was. he was never an a-list actor. aswas sort of a b list actor jack warner, his boss at warner heard thaten he reagan was running for governor of california in the 1960s, he said, no, jimmy stewart for governor, reagan for best friend. the kind of roles he played. he is this relative non-entity and he is going to this of secure and giving the standard talks. the story that reagan told went like this -- he is about to give a talk and some small town in he does not know the people he is going to be speaking to. so he is going to address this group. one of the locals, the program birector of whatever clu
it was is going to introduce reagan. the program director is not familiar with ronald reagan and he simply sees the printed name, ronald regan on the program and he is supposed to introduce them. and act like you know something about him but the problem is, he does not know how the last name is supposed to be pronounced. reegan. be reagan or people of irish background pronounce it both ways, so this man is in a quandary. this is back in the 1950's. today just could go on youtube somebody would be hearing how it is pronounced. so this guy wants to get it right and he does not want to embarrass his guest or his group. he is trying to figure out how he is going to discover how the name is pronounced. in thought on the morning before the talk.
it is a small town and he is walking around like this. while he is walking, he encounters one of his neighbors. the neighbor is out walking his dog. dog and trips over the oh, and the guy you come you look -- says, look like you are worried, what is going on? in his pocket any peoples pulled out the program, and he says, d know this guy, how do i pronounce his name? >> he says, it is ronald reagan. yeah, he used to be a enactor. >> the guy says, it is sure it is reagan? yeah. he starts walking back, and he repeats himself. reagan.reagan, as he is walking back, he again trips over the dog.
he says what kind of dog is it? a bagel. so this is ronald reagan's approach and it characterizes a large part of where i am going to be going with my talk because reagan was president, humor was considered a necessary part of the political arsenal of a president and of a candidate, and this i told you this story, and the no one would say it is enormously clever story, but enough to get a ha ha a little bit. that if therezed is an audience that does not know you and if there is an audience that might be a little bit skeptical about the message that is conveyed, if you can get them to laugh, it loosens them up and it gets them to feel that you are a real person.
in ge, itfor reagan worked for reagan as governor, for reagan as president of the united states. something of a culminating of a trend that had been going on for a long time. i'm going to cover some of that trend. told leeas -- after i what the topic was one to be about tonight, i got to thinking about it a little bit more and i happens to be teaching this past january. i teach this course on the history of the presidency. it is standard for me to begin -- i put up on a screen like this, i put an illustration of our first president and our current president. and i've been teaching it long enough that i go back to this --
back to george w. bush. our first president, our current president, and underneath, the one word explain. this is the theme of the course and this is what the students have to do. how did we get to george washington to george w. bush. how do 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 to george washington to most presidents, you see a linear progression. some people would think that it has the client, -- declined, that the curve slopes down. between the comparison 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 when they are front and center. tot of this is we tend
forget the failures and remember the successes. that's part of it. the other thing is that presidents are usually 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. [laughter] 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 then he was the year 1993.
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 question of popularity and how presidents look better in the rear-view mirror is due to this artifact that nobody is sniping at them anymore. while they're in office, everybody is and you learn all the bad stuff about them. but perhaps the clearest assertion of presidential decline was made by henry adams who was an observer of presidents -- where well, he was the grandson of john adams and the great-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 1860's, 1860's and early 1870's , when ulysses grant was president and this was after the publication of charles darwin on the origin of species -- the introduction of the theory of evolution. take was that anybody who looks at the progression of the presidency from george washington to ulysses grant understands that evolution is a crock. [laughter] mr. brands: 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 it goes down, maybe you
think it goes up. but there is a striking thing. i'm going to propose this to you. you can decide if you want to agree with this or not. there is one sense at least in which donald trump is positively and this is an adjective that i have not heard applied to donald trump -- that donald trump is positively washingtonian. he is very much like the father of our country. and do you know what -- can you guess what i'm going to say is that particular characteristic? 603, that's not too bad. well, ok. 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 he chopped down the cherry tree and his father said
who chopped down the cherry tree. he said i can't tell a lie, i chopped it down. we had this impression that george washington couldn't tell a lie. i do not actually think it's true. i read enough of his diaries and letters to know that he fudged the truth. but he could not tell a joke. [laughter] or maybe it was that he could not -- is that he would not tell a joke. or maybe he could not last 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 a hold 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.
he wrote this down. 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 on 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 is the one who won the revolutionary war and therefore of theseependence united states. he's presiding over the constitutional convention. he was chosen because he was this straight laced sober-minded individual. he was also not saying much. 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, gouverneur morris who lived different times in new york and pennsylvania and he was a delegate to 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 about him is that he 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 injured and it had to be amputated. gouverneur 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 including alexander
hamilton, who 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. hamilton said, what do you want the wager to be? it will be the finest dinner in philadelphia for a dozen of each of our friends. 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 the 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 expected as their president. that's the kind of person americans wanted as their president in the early days of the republic. in what i call the augustan age, and age that runs from george washington up to john quincy adams before the united states , became a democracy, a system in which ordinary people actually exercise political power -- ordinary did not elect to george washington. ordinary people did not even elect the electors who chose george washington. according to the constitution, and there are copies that the center is giving away out there, you will 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 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 gouverneur morris because it really served his purposes to be this one who held himself apart from everybody else because that's what americans wanted. the idea that 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 took up this subject understanding that conveying jokes or humor from the past to the present is a difficult undertaking because writing change.se tastes and you're probably have heard about this, that 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 present, something is lost in the translation, but i am going to try anyway. 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 is the one who makes the presidency preeminently the people's office. and his election appalled members of the establishment, members of, well, the adams family and supporters of all those presidents who had come from the elite, from the american aristocracy. he was the first real common man to be president. and especially in places like new england, around boston, around harvard college. the idea that this unlettered westerner this uncouth , militarist should be president of the united states was something they had a hard time getting their heads 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 dissenters 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 speak on this occasion. and it was a commencement and there were several speeches. and the speakers before jackson stood up and gave their speeches in latin with the belief that this would really flummox jackson. he obviously would not know what was happening. and 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 -- everybody is waiting to hear 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, for example was announced in a , harvard commencement address. so jackson is going to give this pronouncement on the current state and he's going to deal with this attempt by the harvard faculty to embarrass him. so jackson stands up. and he says, e pleuribis oonan, sinaquanon. [laughter] mr. brands: and sat down. all rights enough of you know , latin to get the joke. 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 is in the nature of -- jackson wasn't particularly a funny guy. but one of the things that you see in the evolution of the presidency is the president is not always the telling the jokes ones 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. but he realized that in politics 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 20th century if you had to , figure out who is going to win any given election, you can look at unemployment rates and political platforms and you can look at other 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 everybody is blessed with the kind of wit that can sort of turn a particular situation in a humorist 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 sojourn in the house of representatives
in 1840's, he was a practicing lawyer. and lawyers in springfield, illinois to make a living had to ride the circuit with judges. there was enough business in springfield itself. so they would go out and there were 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 acquaintance. things were kind of slow in this day. there was a recess and this guy was having a trial. he was conducting a trial. he was one of the attorneys in 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 on 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] mr. brands: so when lincoln would introduce himself to audiences in one of his sort of , coming out speeches for the new republican party, lincoln began his political life 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 was somewhat known, but he needed to introduce himself to the group there. and so he began by saying that when he was coming, he was riding his horse to the convention, he encountered a woman on the road who was coming the other way. and the woman stopped him and said, sir, i believe you are the ugliest man i'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. and she says, well, ok. but the least you could have done is stayed home. [laughter] mr. brands: 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. lincoln said two faced? you've got to be kidding. you think if i had another one i would wear this one? [laughter] mr. brands: lincoln used humor to warm up audiences, but he also used humor to get him through the dark days of the civil war. lincoln -- the members of lincoln's cabinet very often groaned when lincoln would start to tell a story because he knew -- because they knew these stories would go on and on and there was business to be done. and sometimes the stories had a point, a moral. for example, at the end of the civil war when jefferson davis was on the run, and nobody could quite figure out what to do with him, lincoln did not want to try him for treason. lincoln wished that the davis problem would simply go away. 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 should we do? and lincoln says, it brings me in mind of 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 baptist could not decide whether to follow his conscience doctor's.'s orders -- 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. 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. maybe, i don't know, thomas jefferson if you like him. , james polk has his fan club. but for the most part, presidents of the 19th century
are unmemorable by design. but things change in 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. so when i was writing about andrew jackson, ulysses grant, well there has got to be a chapter on foreign policy. but there is not that much 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 is the de facto diplomatic chief of foreign policies. it's in the 20th century where the president takes center stage in american politics where it , remains. and so the presidency rewarded people who had these big
personalities, these people -- the kind of people who would arrest your attention. the first president to fit that mold was theodore roosevelt. roosevelt was one who did 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. [laughter] mr. brands: this is theodore roosevelt. is, roosevelt could not appreciate jokes told at his expense. he never -- roosevelt himself didn't tell jokes. but most presidents eventually would get to the where they point 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 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. and so after he gave this long explanation as to why it needed to be done and how it was just the right terms his commander , -- his attorney general said, mr. president, really you should not let such a great accomplishment be tainted by any
width of legality. roosevelt didn't laugh. the other members of the cabinet did. i have to give roosevelt credit for this. roosevelt was one of the first presidents to be the target of other people's humor in a particular form, editorial cartoons. and editorial cartoonists had a field day with roosevelt because he had features that were easily caricature. he had the glasses, the mustache. he was always sort of full of himself and saying 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?
[laughter] mr. brands: 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 presidents portray themselves is the development of the mass media. roosevelt and those editory 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. the president, and this also contributes to the rise of the president as the center of american politics -- reporters can with great difficulty tell , stories about a large group like congress. it's only with great difficulty. it is really 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 things, one of the principles that i gradually inferred from my studies of 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 but it does exist and this is where we are today. so 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 death of his predecessor. and when reporters -- when harry truman became president, he told reporters, i'm going to be as
straight talking as i ever was before i became president. and harry truman was a really unlikely president. he was a creature of one of the last urban political machines, the pindergraph 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. 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 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 franklin roosevelt 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. so roosevelt says all right, just 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 something 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 korean war, maybe we'll use nuclear weapons. can we quote you? yeah, you can quote me. so that makes the headlines 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 libraries after the franklin roosevelt library. he goes to his school. so, 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. he would talk to the people. it have security in the way. he started chatting up this group of third-graders. do you knowhat about history and what do you know about politics? truman the last president not to
have a college degree but he prided himself on this knowledge because he read a lot. so he wasn't quizzing the kids. truman liked to show off on history. my friend greg still shakes his head in puzzlement at this. so greg says, the president stopped and he said ok, kiddies, 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] mr. brands: anyway. so i looked -- i looked for good 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] mr. brands: 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 other two principled candidates are stuart signing tent, a senator from missouri, and john kennedy, a junior senator from massachusetts. the group is sitting in the green room ahead of this debate. they're about to have a debate. they're sitting in the green room. and they're making small talk. and kennedy says, stewart, lyndon i have to tell you something.
something very strange that happened to me. i had a dream last night. in my dream, god reached down from heaven and tapped me on the 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 stewart looks at kennedy. symington 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 of the united states. so symington 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 statue 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. 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 what flap a little it and
the waves would go in the jowls and this is what he said. and he said, stewart, jack, i don't know what to tell you. because you see, i had a dream last night, and i don't remember tapping either one of you on the shoulder. [laughter] mr. brands: 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 back. >> obviously "saturday night live" have a lot of president stuff. >> i'll repeat it. >> what do i think of "saturday night live"? >> what do you think is the best presidential impersonation of all?
mr. brands: 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 an equal opportunity caricaturist and satirist. it didn't matter what the characteristics of what the president were. the cast when after a whoever happened to be in the white house. 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. and so gerald ford was quite unfairly lampooned, but in fact, lampoons are always 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 athletes, 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 it. there was one particular occasion, and 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 particular 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. [laughter] [applause] mr. brands: 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 public 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 across as kind of wooden. 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? mr. brands: 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. and i sort of thought that they were unrollable backable. i have had to change a lot of that. 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 correspondents 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] mr. brands: 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 rejection of this entrenched belief. -- entrenched elite.
the people who voted for andrew jackson against john quincy adams were of the same mindset of people who voted for donald trump against hillary clinton. hillary clinton was the candidate of the establishment and trump was the outsider. thathe idea of mobilizing dissatisfaction, the anger as part of the campaign, i didn't find surprising. i was surprised it worked as well as it did. but, then i was surprised when there was, and i would say until now there has not been any effort to broaden the base of people who chose him. -- i don'trump has know if this is a deliberate decision or he operates on cut instinct. he seems to and it got him to the white house, but he seems to be content with appealing to his base and not really trying much to broaden the base. and he holds rallies.
this is something no sitting president did. in fact, few presidents even before they were elected hold these kind of rallies. the idea of holding rallies after you have been elected is something brand-new. the point of the rally seems to be to keep stoking the dissatisfaction with the status quo. ronald reagan did it to a certain degree. even after four years as president. reagan tried to run as the antiestablishment candidate. isyou can pull it off, it great. it is hard to pull it off. so, i don't know if this is a new model carried president trump has been able to accomplish what he has accomplished with bill observable sense of humor. he is a don't know if funny guy and tells jokes to family or other people, but he seems to make little or no effort to do it as president.
is this something new or is this an aberration? i get asked russians about the meaning of the trump presidency fairly often. my answer is to take the historians dodge and say it is too early to tell. historianske to say, can really run without a long way. [laughter] gibbonsds: so, edward who wrote a six volume history of the decline and fall of the roman empire, published in the late 1700s. it was describing events that have happened 1000 years before. he was once asked, what is the lasting significance of rome? you know what he said? too soon to tell. [laughter] mr. brands: i can give you a date. a precise date on which it will be no longer choosing to tell. that is election day 2020. the reason i say this is
presidents who make a lasting mark on the american political system, who are elevated into the ranks of really important presidents are exclusively those presidents who get reelected. the presidents for whom voters have a chance to vote on their performance. presidents get elected the first time on the promise. promise is one thing. you can be a persuasive's promise or but it doesn't always pay off. maybe you change your mind or something. say anybodygoing to can get elected on the promise, but you can get elected on promises and not follow through. you get reelected on the performance. any president who puts himself, and they are all hims until now. anyone up for reelection is
asking for, a vote of confidence. , bute voters reelect you however small a margin, even if the second go around in 2020 be with a minority of the popular vote, we have a set of rules. if under the rules you win, that says the american people liked what you did. what youean they liked did in an absolute sense? no. they only will i cuba that the person you are running against. but that is the standard in every election. nobody gets to run against nothing. you run against somebody else. often, votes are negative votes. we don't like the other scoundrel worse than this idiot, so nonetheless is donald trump should get reelected, then all of the changes that he has announced come and changes to american foreign policy,
domestic policy will have received the ratification of the voters. then, people like me will have to say all right, something new and potentially permanent is going on. if, for whatever reason he does not get a second term. if he runs and is defeated in the general election, or challenge in the primaries and loses, should he resign, or be impeached and convicted come if he doesn't get a second term, then it will be entirely possible to say ok, this was a one-time thing. it represents the state of mind of a at this particular moment. for me, whether it has to do attitudes, orth any number of things, presidents are less important for what they are than for what they represent. one of the things they most represent is, they are barometers of the political culture. we get the presidents we deserve. if voters say we like this new
dispensation and it goes on, then there will have been an effective change of mind and the american political culture and the american electorate. that will behing 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 back. but make it april of 2021? very much. you have been a wonderful audience. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2019] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] >> interested in american history tv? visit our website. you can view our tv schedule, preview upcoming programs and what college lectures, museum tours, archival films, and more. american history tv at c-span.org/history. sunday night on the presidency,
university of virginia professor william hitchcock talks about his book "the age of eisenhower." he fields questions from the audience and former abc news white house correspondent and compton. here is a preview. during the kennedy years, the camelot plan used eisenhower as a foil to reflect glory on their young and dynamic john kennedy. after all, it is harder than it looks. students would all get this. workn't you if you kennedy's advanced menus ike as the counterpoint? eisenhower playing scrabble and i think that looks pleasant and lovely. but they had to work with this guy. naturally, there was a sharp contrast. it worked against eisenhower's
memory and against the impression given to the public. by the time of his death on march 20 8, 1969, at the age of president -- the press seemed uninterested in ike. there was an obituary the concluded eisenhower was a figurehead rather than a president. that is what they said about him in time in 1969. he was out of touch with his people. toreat soldier, but judged mediocrity or a failure as a president. starting in the 1980's, a great deal of classified information started to become available to scholars. if you work in the eisenhower library you can read all kinds of juicy details about the eisenhower period. this material showed quite a different eisenhower. it showed he was deeply involved in government. deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the national security council. especially, he
was a master of the brief. he was deeply involved in the details of american national security issues. but, the emphasis of the scholarship has started to come out, having read all of this was to attack eisenhower for being an evil genius. had overthrown the government in iran, and guatemala, and what about hugo -- what about cuba and the congo? and then we had a new branch of scholarship calling him evil. this is history for you. the pendulum is constantly swinging. if your head is swimming, i am not surprised. where is the real eisenhower? >> learn more about the nation's 34th president sunday at 8 p.m. and midnight eastern on the presidency. you're watching american history
tv, only on c-span 6. ext, on "lectures in history," joshua rothman teaches a session on abolition and pro-slavery movements in the early 1800's. his class is about 50 minutes. >> so today we're going to talk about anti-slavery, the emergence of a new kind of anti-slavery and the reaction to that new kind of anti-slavery. we sort of haven't looked at opposition to slavery in a while but in a generation or two after the ratification of the constitution, it was not unusual for both northerners and southerners to talk about the morality of slavery. before the 1830's or so they were relatively few white americans who believed that enslaved