tv The Presidency Humor in the White House CSPAN April 23, 2019 8:00pm-9:11pm EDT
president and jokes and humor and i know enough about the history of the presidency and some of you perhaps have caught on to this there is a potential problem there. there were two presidents who served before the white house was the official residence of the president and while the presidency and humor humor in the white house did not quite do it but actually it does work because neither of the first two presidents had a sense of humor. so it gets me out of that problem. but i'm going to follow the lead of perhaps the most successful humorist in the white house it might not be the person you're thinking of by doing what he always did or in most cases what he did at the beginning of a talk. he started with a joke. some of you will have heard this joke but please pretend you have not heard it before
and laugh at the appropriate point. so this is a joke and it's a key to part of my story that ronald reagan used to tell. the key is as you will see ronald reagan was effectively telling this story on himself. it related to a time in his career where he did not know sort of what he was doing or where he was going, as you will know of ronald reagan he had two careers primarily he was a film actor and then he became a politician. but there was a period between after he stopped getting calls from hollywood producers, he could not get any good roles. between when his career ended and his political career began and he had a rather unusual position in fact it was a job that was invented for him by
the general electorate corporation. it was the great industrial behemoths, the american economy and reagan was there paid spokesman. he was a host, a television hoax host for the theater and the theater was an experiment in television, this was in the 1950s. nobody knows quite what to do with tv and so they think what you do with the television camera is you film a play and people just watch plays on tv so reagan was the host, he was not the star he was in a couple of these but he mostly just introduce 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 electorate and the glories and wonders and conveniences of electricity, better living through electricity. and he was fine because reagan
in that phase of his life was afraid to fly and he had written in his contract that he would not fly so he traveled by train across the country. he would go through small towns and very often he would find himself addressing the local rotary club. or the chamber of commerce and used to call the rubber chickens circuit and he would find himself in small towns where people did not know who he was because he was never famous he was sort of the b list actor as his boss as warner bros. said, he said jimmy stewart forgot her radiance the best friend that was the kind of role he played anyway he is this relative nonentity and he is going to these rather obscure towns and giving these sort of standard talks. so the story that reagan told
went like this. he is about to give a talk and in some small town in the midwest and he does not know the people he's going to be speaking to it's been lined up by his publicity agent so he is going to address this group and one of the locals, the program director of whatever club it was is going to introduce reagan but the thing is that the program director is not familiar with ronald reagan and he simply sees the printed name on the program and he is supposed introduce them. and act like you knew something about him but the problem is that he does not know how the last name is supposed to be pronounced, people of irish background pronounced is different ways so this man is in a quandary this is back in the 1950s, today you could just
go on youtube and somebody would introduce him and he would hear how it's pronounced, you could not do that then. so this guy is pretty conscientious he wants to get it right he does not want to embarrass his group so he is trying to figure out how he's going to resolve this problem and how he will discover how the name is pronounced. so he's deep in thought on the morning before the talk and it's a small town and he's walking around and while he's walking encounters one of his neighbors, the neighbor is out walking his dog and this guy actually trips over the dog and the neighbor says joe you really look like what's going on? he starts explaining the deal reaches in his pocket and pulls out the program and he says do you know this guy? you ever heard of this guy how do i pronounce his name? and he looks and says it's ronald reagan, used to be an
actor. and joe says are you sure it's reagan? yes, you say reagan it's fine. he said you took a huge load off my shoulders and he starts walking back and repeats himself. as he's walking back he again trips over the dog and says that's a cute dog what kind of dog is it? a bagel. so this is ronald reagan's approach and it characterizes 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 the president. of a candidate. and this because i told you this story and nobody would say
it's an enormously clever story but it's enough to get a laugh. reagan recognized from those years on that if there's an audience that does not know you if there is an audience that might be skeptical about the messages you are conveying, if you can get them to laugh it loosens them of, it makes them feel that you are a real person and not simply this flak and it worked for reagan as governor and as president of the united states. and it represented something of a culmination of a trend that had been going on for a long time. so i'm going to cover some of that trend. after i said what the topic was going to be i got to thinking about it more and i happen to be teaching as of this january a course, i teach it every
other year it's on the history of the presidency. it is standard for me to begin the course with i put up on a screen an image, an illustration of our first president and our current president. i've been teaching a long enough that i go back to this course back to george w. bush. our first president, our current president underneath the one word explained. and so this is the theme of the course this is what the students actually have to do how did we get from george washington to george w. bush, how did we get from washington to barack obama, how did we get from washington to donald trump? one of the striking things is if you go from george washington to most presidents before the current president you see a linear progression. some people would think that it
has declined, 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 rearview mirror. parts of this is that we tend to forget the failures and remember the successes. that's part of it the other thing is that presidents are usually pretty talented people and they usually have a lot of positive things that can be said about them but wiley are presidents 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 is largely gone, this is why certain presidents for themselves into thinking i could have run for a third
term. dwight eisenhower was more popular by pulling at the end of his presidency than he was at the beginning of his presidency and he used to think i could have gotten a third term. bill clinton was more popular in the year 2000 10 he was in the year 1993. if he could have run for a third term he could have one, 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. so this question of popularity and how presidents look better in the rearview mirror is partly due to this artifact of nobody is sniping at them
anymore whereas while they are in office everybody is and you learn all the best of about them. perhaps the clearest statement and assertion of presidential decline was made by henry adam who was an observer of presidents, he was the grandson of john adams, the great- grandson of john adams and great grandson of john quincy adams and the adams family was in this state of political decline where there were two atoms presidents and their background but henry adams cannot even make a start in politics but he became a very distinguished historian and when he was writing in the 1860s , when ulysses grant was president 10 years after the publication of charles darwin on the origin of species, the introduction of the theory of evolution, adams is take on this was that anybody who looks at the progression of the
presidency from george washington to ulysses grant understands that evolution is a crock, utterly refutes the theory. anyway, i was going to say in most cases it looks as though there is this linear line that they can go down and up but there is a striking thing i'm going to pros this to you and you can decide whether you agree or not there is one sense in which donald trump is positively and this is an additive i have not heard applied to him that he is positively washingtonian, very much like the father of our country. and can you guess what i'm going to say? what that particular
characteristic is? i hear it's in the front but i'm not going to advertise it just yet. you all know the story but it's part of american historical war that george washington you know the story about george washington and the cherry tree and how he chopped down the cherry tree and his father said who topped down the cherry tree and says i cannot tell a lie i topped it down with my accent saw so we have this impression that george washington could not tell a lie, i don't actually think that's true i read enough about washington's diary and letters but whether or not he could not tell a lie he could not tell a joke. and he could not tell a joke or maybe it's just that he would not tell a joke nor would he laugh at a joke. 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 principles of life for a young man something like 110 of them and one of them said last seldom and never interesting wish company. these were words that he came to live by. 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. people would try to warm him up, there is a story told on good authority about george washington at the constitutional convention, this is before his president. he is this austere figure, the commander of the continental army he is the one who won the
revolutionary war and therefore the independence for the united states and presiding over the constitutional dimension and he was chosen in part because he was this very sober minded individual, he also would not say much it was known that he would not participate in debate and you make him presidents the presiding officer but some of the other members of the convention one in particular morris who lived different times in new york and pennsylvania, he was a delegate to the convention from pennsylvania and he was very much a very well met type, he walked on a wooden leg and the story that was sometimes told about him that he had lost his leg in the revenues letter revolutionary war, the other story is that he badly injured himself diving out of the
bedroom window. of one of his lovers just at the moment that her husband was returning home. anyway governor morris was one that wanted this convention to be not quite as somber as it seems to be so he made a bet with some of his friends there including alexander hamilton and hamilton knew washington better than morris did. so he made this bet that he could actually loosen up george washington. so hamilton said you have about or what do you want the wager to be the finest dinner in philadelphia for a dozen of each of our friends so if i when you treat us and if you and i treat you. so he goes up to george washington and puts his arms
around and says george how you doing glad to see you. the way governor morris tells the story he said at that moment general washington fixed me with an icy glare. 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 was 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. and what i call the augustine age of the american presidency, the age that runs from george washington up through john quincy adams, before the united states became a democracy, a system in which ordinary people
actually exercised political power. ordinary people did not elect george washington, ordinary people for the most part did not even elect the electors who chose washington, according to the constitution you will read that each state shall select electors and it does not say how they get to choose, they get to choose how the electors are chosen and until as late as the 1820s most state legislatures chose the electors, not voters in the state. in that era americans expected their presidents to stand above them. nobody 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 himself apart from everybody else because that's what americans wanted and the
idea that the presidency was a serious undertaking, the idea that your president should have a sense of humor, the laugh 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 so you are really hard-pressed to find a sense of humor in the white house telling jokes, really before about 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 tastes change and perhaps you have heard the
statements that's writing about music is like dancing about architecture, it's a little bit like that to translate you will see. the translate humor from the past to the present something is lost in the translation but i'm going to try anyway and you are going to be able to get this one. andrew jackson is the first popularly elected president, the one that makes the presidency preeminently, the people office. and his election appalled members of the establishment. members of the addams 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. especially in places like new england around boston at harvard college the idea that
this westerner, this militarist should be president of the united states was something they had a really hard time getting their heads around and john quincy adams who was defeated by jackson in 1828 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. there were people in new england and at harvard that took a different view. this is the way the world is going we have to make our peace with it. the board of trustees of harvard decided in the interest of holding out an olive branch they were going to present a honorary harvard degree. john quincy adams almost had a fit and wrote to the president saying you can't do that but
the occasion went forward. they say we can't stop this but we will show jackson up. in those days it was not unheard of and it was still accepted practice on certain occasions for academics to give their addresses to deliver their papers in latin. the traditional language of electricals in the academy and so without telling the president of the university whose reputation was on the line saying sure i will be happy to speak on this so there were several speeches and the speakers before jackson stood up and gave their speeches in latin. jackson would obviously not know what was happening and be so embarrassed that he would be
humiliated and shown up and that would be the end of it as i say with explaining these historical stories context is necessary, this was at a moment when jackson was holding the union together by force. south carolina was threatening to secede from the union over eight tariff that it did not like and jackson was asserting know the union was central and must hold so this is the background and everybody is waiting to hear what the president is going to say. jackson was the first of presidents and this became a fairly common thing for presidents and other deciduous members, the marshall plan was announced so jackson is going to give this pronouncement on the current state and he's also going to deal with this attempt by the faculty to embarrass him. jackson stands up and he says e
pluribus unum. that's the best i've got on a joke from jackson and i have to confess that story is probably somewhat exaggerated. it's in the nature of jackson was not a particularly funny guy but it is not always that the presidents are the ones telling the jokes or telling the stories but the president becomes the object, sometimes the butts of the stories and jokes. in a way that was not true with somebody like george washington to tell things like that but with jackson things are fair game. the office of the presidency
evolves until the next ordinary person to get elected president being abraham lincoln and he is perhaps the most famous humorist in the white house. you will see a connection here between lincoln and ronald reagan. lincoln told stories. he told jokes. but he realized that in politics when you tell jokes, jokes often have a target. a person who is being talked about or teased and lincoln understood that in politics, in democratic politics the only safe target of a joke is you yourself. if you target anybody else 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 good thing that happens is you avoid that and the second thing is you make people think he does not 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 in the 20th century whereby the 20th century, certainly by the second half if you had to figure out who was going to win an election you can look at things like unemployment rates and political platforms and you can look at other things but the most reliable single indicator is what you can generically call a likability index. which of the candidates would rather sit down and have a beer with? if there is a clear difference that candidate is likely to win. with lincoln this business of likability we see it for the first time and can really needs to make himself likable. he also did have a certain whip
and not everybody is blessed with the kind of wit that can return a particular situation in a humorous direction. this is a story told about lincoln but you will see that lincoln has a punchline so lincoln before he went into politics and after the 1840s he was a practicing lawyer and lawyers to make a living they had to write a circuit with the judges there was not enough business for that itself so they had to go out and 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 acquaintance who was a relatively young man and things were kind of slow in this day, this guy was having a trial conducting a trial, so there is a recess and this guy is young and full of energy, he
considered himself somewhat of an athlete so he got in a wrestling match during the lunch break with this other guy and they are wrestling around on the ground and this guy rips his pants, the judges back and the trial continues and he stands up for the court as he turns to address the jury, he has this big hole in the bottom of his pants. the other members of the bar sitting around decide to take up a contribution to buy him a new pair of pants and they silently send this prescription sheet around the room and it comes to lincoln, lincoln was always rather thrifty with his money and did not want to give any money away so he declined
to contribute and he said he just wrote instead i cannot contribute to the end in view. so when lincoln would introduce himself to audiences in one of his speeches for the new republican party lincoln began but the party declined early and the republicans held their first convention in illinois, bloomington illinois and lincoln attended and he was not that well-known, he was somewhat known but needed to introduce himself to the group there. so he began by saying when he was coming he was riding his horse to the convention he encountered a woman on the road coming the other way. the woman stopped him and said sir i believe you are the ugliest man i have ever seen.
lincoln says this is the way god made me and sorry. she said okay but the least you can do is have stayed home. on another occasion lincoln lampooned his appearance, when one of his political opponents described him as two-faced. lincoln said two-faced you have to be kidding, you think if i had another one i would wear this one? lincoln used humor to warm-up audiences. but he also used humor to get him through the dark days of the civil war. the members of lincolns cabinet very often grow when lincoln would start to tell the story. they knew these stories would go on and on and there was business to be done. sometimes the stories had a point or immoral, 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 them lincoln did not want to try him for treason, we can wished that the davis problem would simply go away, inc. and was in favor of a speedy and lenient reconstruction. but he had to have some sort of policy about what to do with confederate leaders so he was asked what to do and he said it brings me in mind this baptist 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 strand of whiskey once per day and the baptist could not decide whether to follow his conscience or the doctor's orders. the baptist finally concluded
he came up with a solution so he told his wife there is a punch bowl over there and you can slip a little bit of that whiskey into the punch, then i can drink it in good conscious and all would be well. wells is lincoln, if somehow mr. davis could slip out of the country unbeknown to me much of our problem would go away. the institution of the presidency changed dramatically at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, through the 19th century the president and the presidency were not at the center of american political life they were not expected to be, by the constitution congress 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 are only a couple infantry presidents that people remember. andrew jackson, abraham lincoln, maybe thomas jefferson , 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 have written about 19th century presidents and to write about the presidency i have this idea because i started writing history in the 20th century so i think there has to be a lot on foreign policy. there is really not that much
foreign policy. it's only in the 20th century when the united states becomes a world power. the united states has a full- time foreign policy and then the president. the president is commander-in- chief of the armed forces and the diplomat in chief for relations with foreign countries and in the 20th century the presidency takes center stage in american politics so the presidency rewarded people who had these big personalities, the kind of people that would arrest your attention when you walk into the room, the first one that sets the model for modern president was theodore roosevelt and he was one that really did take up all the air in a 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 you have to remember he has to be the bride at every wedding and corpse at every funeral. so this is theodore roosevelt.
maybe this is not so odd given that personality but roosevelt could not appreciate jokes told at his expense. roosevelt himself did not take tell jokes but most presidents eventually would get to the point where they would learn to laugh when people made jokes about him because that was the easiest way of dealing with it. roosevelt had to train himself to do it there was one moment when he considered his most important accomplishment as president to be getting the panama canal under construction. this was his contribution to world history he's at. to get it going he essentially had to have a revolution in panama to break it free from columbia and under international law or even ordinary codes of ethics it was
highly problematic. roosevelt can be in a cabinet session to basically convince everybody that he had done the right thing. after he gave this long notification his attorney general stood up and said mr. president, really you should not let such a great accomplishment as this be tainted by any legality. roosevelt did not laugh, the other members of the cabinet did not i have to give roosevelt credit for this he was one of the first presidents to be the target of other peoples humor in a particular form. editorial cartoons and editorial cartoonists had a field day with roosevelt because he had features that were easily character to, he had the glasses and the mustache, she was always full of himself and there were
various cartoonists who would skewer roosevelt and she either to his credit or maybe to his rudeness would respond by writing a letter to the cartoonist, the person that wrote the cartoon and said i have a great laugh out of this which he didn't and he said i like it so much, could you send me the original. nobody ever knew what happened to the original but it was he understood that he needed to do this even though it came hard. the presidency would continue to evolve and the biggest evolution in the presidency as it relates to this question of humor and how presidents portray themselves as the development of a modern mass media. roosevelt and those editorial cartoons, the reason that they were so popular and so effective was that roosevelt was the first president in the
age of the modern mass newspaper of the penny press. technological developments in the printing industry made it possible for newspapers to be printed and sold for one penny. newspapers in the middle of the 19th century were like expensive magazines today. ordinary people do not read newspapers you had to have a certain threshold of income but by the beginning of the 20th century everybody could read newspapers so the contributes to the center of american politics, reporters can with great difficulty tell stories about a large group like congress. it's only with great difficulties, it's tempting for reporters to tell about a single individual and if you have a charismatic and arresting individual like roosevelt then it's easier to tell stories about so as the expectations change the system
selects four of those characteristics, one of the things that i have gradually inferred from my study is for better or worse this applies to whether you like the president or not we get the presidents what we deserve, i said is literally because we chose them. you did not choose this particular one but this is the best method anybody can come up with for selecting presidents. basically have this vote we can argue about the electoral college that falls in the category that did not exist, nobody would invent it today but it does exist and this is where we are but anyway once these expectations developed for presidents, presidents adapt themselves to them and they become the candidates who i can live up to the
expectation. 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 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 very unlikely presidents, he was a creature of one of the last urban political machines. he was known primarily as a political hack but he was loyal to roosevelt and he needed a new vice presidential running made in 1944. through telling and observing this story i am reminded how much things have changed over time and what we expect of our
presidents but also how presidents and the running mates are chosen. we live in a time where presidents, whoever gets the nomination of the party gets to choose, often without consulting anybody else, that was not the case for most of american history, most of american history the presidents were told this is going to be a running mate because of the leaders of the party had the interest of the party at heart and the need to balance the ticket geographically and by age and various other things. the democrats told roosevelt you have to get rid of your current vice president, it was clear that franklin roosevelt was not in good health, there was this real concern among conservative democrats that he would die in office and leave henry as president of the united states. so they threatened a mutiny at
the convention, so they said all right just get that guy from kansas city, he hardly met truman so truman becomes president and he says he's going to be this straight talking guy and he did hold press conferences and 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 blessed permission so when harry truman held press conferences he would say can we quote you on that. nowadays we live in this age of other transparency, if a president even says something inadvertently it's considered fair game. truman discovered that there were limits on his tandoor when he was thinking aloud saying in the middle of the korean war
maybe we will use nuclear weapons and then can we coach you and yes we can coach you, that makes the headlines of the world all of the sudden this nuclear alarm that there's going to be a war. 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 free or with what he was saying. i have a very good friend who grew up in kansas city, he grew up in kansas city in the 19 50s and he recalled visiting the truman library, the second of the presidential library after the franklin roosevelt library. so he goes to kansas and takes a field trip to the truman library and my friend craig is a third-grader, they are all trooping out of the bus to go into the library and who should they see but former president
harry truman who lives just several blocks from the library, had an office in the library and every morning he would get up and walk to the library. he would talk with the people on the way, he did not have security on the way and he would talk to the people, he started chatting up this group of third-graders. truman, the last president not to have a college degree prided himself on his knowledge of history because he read a lot. so he was quizzing the kids and truman likes to show off how much he knew about history so he was going to quiz the third- graders and demonstrate he knew more than a third-grader. so the president stopped and he said okay 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 is
a committee that deals with our relations with other countries. in the house of representatives is called the committee on foreign affairs. in the senate it's called the committee on foreign relations. do you know why the senate committee is called the committee on foreign relations? they have no idea what to say. he says it's because senators are too old to have affairs. anyway. so i looked for good jokes told by dwight eisenhower. dwight eisenhower was pretty straight away and the best i could come up with is eisenhower definition of an atheist. his definition of an atheist is he said it is somebody who goes to a football game where notre
dame plays fmu and he does not care who wins. i'm running out of time so i'm going to tell you a story about linda johnson. i have a couple more reagan stories i can tell you but i'll tell you about linda johnson. this is one, linda johnson is not all clear that linda johnson had much of a sense of humor. so stories were told about johnson rather than told by johnson but here's the one that captures the essence. it is told of the 1968 democratic campaign for the nomination for president, linda johnson has thrown his hat in the ring and the other two principal candidates are stuart simonton, a senator from missouri and john kennedy. a junior senator from massachusetts. the three men are sitting in the green room, ahead of this
debate. why the green rooms are called the green rooms i don't know not one of them has been green but nonetheless there are sitting there and making small talk. kennedy says stewart, linden, i have to tell you something very strange that happens to me. i had a dream last night and in my dream god reached down from heaven and tapped me on the shoulder. he said jack, you are 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 he looks at kennedy and simonton the model of a senator, this tall square jaw
guy with this great mane of white hair looks at the much younger kennedy and looks at johnson and said jack, i don't know what to tell you. because i had a dream last night and in the dream god reached down from heaven and tapped me on the shoulders and said stew, for your long and faithful service you are going to be rewarded. you will win the democratic nomination. when i tell this story to my students in boston, where the johnson library is located, i ask them, how many of you have
been to the lyndon johnson library which is there? any of you by any chance been to the lyndon johnson library? it's unusual among presidential libraries in greeting you before you go in as a life-sized statue of lyndon johnson. and i invite my students to do this especially those who think they have ideas of a career in politics. one of the ways to determine i think whether you might be good at a career is to measure yourself against people who actually do that career, do that occupation. if you think you want to be a teacher, follow a teacher. if you think you want to be an engineer, or a doctor, see what they do on a daily basis. so i tell the students who think they want to go into politics, 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 lifelike. some of you will have a mental image of lyndon johnson. but he had this unusually
large head. and he had really big years. ears. and by this time he had kind of jowls. and when johnson would get sort of invested in something that he was saying, he would often shake his head, in this case he did shake his head, and those big ears would flap a little bit. and the jowls what kind of go on the jowls and this is what he did. and he said, stuart, 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 ] >> okay. i'm going to stop there. i'm going to stop there. and see if there are any responses, any questions. and so we'll see where we go.
i certainly don't want to overstay my welcome. questions, any reaction? yes, sir in the back? >> [ inaudible question ] >> i'll repeat it. go ahead. yeah. what do i think of "saturday night live"? >> [ inaudible question ] >> yeah okay. that's a really hard question to answer. in any way that will get general assent. a lot of it depends on how much you dislike the 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 certain sense, it was an equal opportunity caricature. and satirist. and so it really didn't matter what the politics of the president were. the cast on "saturday night live" went after whoever happened to be in the limelight because their business was to get laughs and 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, gerald ford was quite unfairly lampooned, but in fact lampooned are always unfair. they are a great exaggeration. in ford's case, it was an entirely mischaracterization. chevy chase was the one as part of the original cast of "saturday night live," he used to do the stumble down the steps of air force one and we'll pull the tablecloth off the table and do all this
clumsy stuff. giving out the impression that gerald force was a double bottom. when in fact ford was probably the best athlete, one of the most graceful individuals to occupy the white house. and ford could have tried to dispute this characterization of him, but he was shrewd enough to realize it would have been a waste of time. so he basically grinned and bore it. but there was one particular occasion, i don't remember the context, where he had a chance to make a little bit of a comeback. now again, this is in the category of you might need this punchline explained. but i'm going to go with it anyway. so chevy chase has been lampooning gerald ford for some while. and the two of them meet. on some particular occasion. and chevy chase sort of wants to let ford know that this is all in good fun.
and so he says, gerald ford, you are really actually a very good president. and ford without missing a beat says, and you, chevy chase, 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 sort of, telegraphic style of speech. and while bush was president, you know, he would smile, yeah, that's 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. and so i got to meet him, he would come to my classes and he always struck me as one of the most decent individuals to occupy the white house. and the most, i had no idea that he had this sense of humor and this capacity for humor. but it was not long after he left the white house and about the time 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 the sense that the press was not allowed. and one of the things that presidents often have a hard time with and george h. w. bush really had this problem, when the press was around he sort of had to act presidential. and so he often came across as kind of wooden. lyndon johnson had the same problem. but he knew there were no reporters in the room, 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, and 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 and reactions? yes. okay. >> circling back to your initial talk about the president, this president and george washington, i'm assuming the lack of humor that is characteristics. >> one of the striking things to me about president trump is his what shall i say, his lack of observable sense of humor.
and not even any attempt to fake it. i would have bet, i would have said before president trump was elected, of course, i would have said a lot of things, i had very different expeditions about changes in the presidency and i sort of thought they were on-roll back- able but every president from really about definitely from john kennedy or you could say even earlier than that, had to at least fake a sense of humor. and sometimes it meant laughing at the joke people told about you. sometimes it would be telling jokes yourself. and so presidents would sort of do this sort of thing and i assumed, it sort of seems, it seems logical that a few want to get the support of people, to 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 stereotype however false the stereotype might be. and in one of his last speeches before the national correspondence, where presidents for a long time they would give there, sort of their johnny carson, jay leno 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 antiestablishment candidates. and he was essentially playing into people's anger. people's anger at the establishment. and donald trump, likes to
liken himself to andrew jackson. as the antiestablishment candidate. and president. i think that there is less similarity between the individuals, trump and jackson, then there is in people who voted for them. in both cases, it was a rejection of this entrenched elite. and the people who voted for andrew jackson against john quincy adams were very much of the same mindset that the people who voted for donald trump against hillary clinton. hillary clinton was clearly the candidate of the establishment, and trump was the outsider. and so the idea of sort of mobilizing that dissatisfaction, that anger as part of the campaign, i didn't find surprising. i was surprised that it actually worked as well as it did. but then i was surprised when there was and i would say until now, there still has not been any effort to broaden the base of people who chose him.
and president trump has, i don't know if this is a deliberate decision, or if it's just he operates on gut instinct and he seemed to and it got him to the white house so you can't say it's not worth anything, but he seemed to be content with appealing to his base. and not really trying much to broaden the base. and if that's what you're going to, and he holds rallies, political rallies, this is something no president, no sitting president did. in fact few presidents even before they were elected. but the idea of holding the rallies after you've been elected is something brand- new. and the point of the rallies seems to be to keep stoking that dissatisfaction with the status quo. ronald reagan did it to a certain degree, even after four years as president. reagan tried to run as the antiestablishment candidate. if you can pull it off, it's great but it's hard to pull it off after you've been at the
center of the establishment as president. so i don't know if this is a new model. so president trump has been able to accomplish what he's accomplished, with no observable sense of humor. now again, i don't know if he's a funny guy and tells jokes to family or other things. other people. but he seems to make at least so far, little or no effort to do it as president. now, is this something new or is this an aberration? i get asked questions about the meaning of the trump presidency fairly often. and my answer is, to take the historians' dodge and say that it's too early to tell. and as i like to say, historians, can really run without a long way. so edward given who wrote six volume history of the decline and fall of roman empire which was published in the late 1700s and it was describing
events that happened a thousand years before. and he was once asked, what is the last thing significant of rome? and you know what he said? too soon to tell. well, but i can give you a date, a precise date on which it will be no longer too soon to tell. and that is election day 2020. and the reason i say this is that residents who make a lasting mark on the american political system, who are elevated into the rank of really important president, 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. and promise is one thing. you can be a persuasive promise her but it doesn't
always pay off. and maybe you don't deliver on your promises or you change your mind or something. so i'm not going to say that anybody can get elected on the promise. but you can get elected on promises and not follow through. you get reelected on the performance. and any president who puts himself in the, until now, put himself up for reelection basically is asking for well, in the british context, this would be a vote of confidence. and if voters reelect you, by however small a margin, even if the second go round in 2020 should be with a minority of the popular vote, we've got the set of rules and if under those rules you win, then that says the american people like what you did. now, does it mean they like what you did in an absolute sense and in an ideal world? no. they only like you better than the person you're running against. but that's the standard in every election.
nobody gets to run against nothing. you run against somebody else. and often votes are negative votes, we don't like the other scoundrel worse than this idiot, so, but nonetheless if donald trump should get reelected and get a second term, then pretty much all of the changes that he's announced and changed to american foreign policy, changes to american domestic policy, those will have received a ratification of voters. and so 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, if he is challenged in the primaries and loses, should he resign, or be impeached and convicted, if he doesn't get a second term, then it will be entirely possible to say okay, this was a one-time thing. and it represents the state of
mind of voters at this particular moment. because for me, whether it has to do with humor, whether it has to do with attitude or any number of things, presidents are less important for what they are, than for what they represent. and one of the things they must represent is barometers of the political culture. as i said before we get the president's we deserve. and if voters say we like this new sensation and it goes on, then there will have been this effective change of mind in the american political culture and american electorate. and that is something that will be of lasting importance. so if you ask me in december 2020, i will no longer be able to say too soon to tell. please invite me back but maybe let's make it april of 2021? may, very good. thank you very much. you've been a wonderful audience. thank you all for coming.
washington journal, live every day with news and policy issues that impact you. coming up wednesday morning, former trump epa official and energy cofounder mandy discusses president trump's environmental and energy policy. and southern university professor robert bullard referred to as the father of the environmental justice movement discusses the future of the movement. then historians douglas brinkley, medford and richard norton smith discuss the new book the testament. sure to watch c-span washington journal, live at 7:00 eastern wednesday morning during the discussion. attorney general william barr will testify before both the house and senate judiciary committee on the mueller report. live wednesday, thursday may 1st and 2nd on c-span 3, c- span.org, or listen with the free c-span radio app.
american history in prime time continues wednesday with our lectures in history series, which takes viewers into college classrooms around the u.s. penn state university professor elaine france features a class on the history of being arrested, what the experience has been from the 1850s to the present day. this event took part at the trumbull correctional institution in ohio as part of the national inside out prison exchange program which brings together college students and inmates for classes. american history tv, wednesday at 8:00 p.m. eastern on c-span 3. president trump is skipping the annual white house correspondents dinner again this year. and we'll hold a campaign rally instead in green bay, wisconsin. watch live coverage of the rally saturday on c-span at 8:00 p.m. eastern and following the rally watch live coverage at
the white house correspondents dinner with featured speaker ron chernow. congress is still out of session for the easter passover recess, but members are currently home with constituents while the house and senate are on the two week break. the house returns to washington next monday, for work on 2020 federal spending, immigration policy also remains a priority for the democratic-led house. the senate also returns monday to continue the confirmation process for district court judges and executive positions in the trump administration. follow the house live on c- span, the senate live on c- span 2. this is a special edition of american history tv. a sample of the compelling history programs that air every weekend on american history tv. like lectures in history, american artifacts, real america, the civil war, oral histories, the presidency, and special event coverage about our nation's history.
enjoy american history tv now and every weekend on c-span 3. now a discussion on presidential impeachment. authors look at three presidential impeachment proceedings conducted in u.s. history, involving andrew johnson, richard nixon and bill clinton. southern methodist university in dallas. this is an hour. good evening, everybody and welcome to tonight's event on impeachment in american history, a book published by random house just a few short months ago. my name is thomas pierre and i am the dean of the college of humanities and sciences at smu and i am very pleased to welcome you all here today. tonight's event is sponsored by the center for presidential history and i am very pleased to announce that just recently the center was moved into dedman college of humanities and sciences. very pleased to welcome them here. because they complement the research and teaching mission of