Topeka Capital Journal
Aug. 12, 1991
In this country we like to say that anybody can grow up to be president, but that’s like saying anybody can win the lottery. The odds are against anyone who has the White House in mind. That goes even for a vice president, particularly if his name is Dan Quayle.
All most of us can do about the presidency is hope we vote for the winner, and then hope he does a decent job. We also can hope he has a sense of humor, because when you consider the shape the country is in, it is clear the head man needs to be able to laugh and make others laugh with him.
If you were to rate presidents by their sense of humor, you would have to admit that, despite all his weaknesses, John Kennedy was the best ever. Throughout his career, his wit stands out like no president before or since.
Asked how he became a war hero, he said, “It was easy. They sank my boat.” During his presidential campaign he said his wealthy father would finance a victory, “but he flatly refuses to pay for a landslide.”
Of politics he said, “It made it possible for me to move from being an obscure lieutenant in the United States Navy to commander-in-chief of all the armed forces in just 14 years, and with very little technical competence.”
Appointing his brother Bobby attorney general, he said it proved that if you studied the law, applied yourself, worked hard, and if your brother was president, you could become the top lawyer in the land. And besides, he added, Bobby needed on-the-job training.
Accepting an honorary degree at Yale, he said, “I now have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” Asked what he thought of press coverage of his administration, he replied, “Well, I’m reading more and enjoying it less.”
Kennedy hosted a dinner in the White House for Nobel Prize winners and told them, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
When the Kennedys visited Paris, the president opened his address by saying, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.”
Kennedy had enough wit to fill a book, and it’s called “The Complete Kennedy Wit,” edited by Bill Adler. Another book, “Presidential Anecdotes,” gathered by Paul F. Boller Jr., explores the humor of other White House occupants.
Calvin Coolidge didn’t have much to say, but he had a quick wit. A woman sitting next to him at a luncheon said, “Mr. President, I have made a bet I can get you to say more than two words.” Taciturn Cole replied, “You lose.”
Once, aboard a presidential campaign train, his aides urged him to address a crowd gathered at the tracks. He went to the observation platform, waved, said “Goodbye,” and went back into the train.
Harry Truman had a tough hide, and needed it. When things were going badly he had to put up with such barbs as “To air is Truman” and “What would Truman do if he were alive?” But he also had a wit of sorts. When political reporters predicted he would lose to Thomas Dewey, he snorted, “None of them has sense enough to pound sand in a rat hole.”
After Truman used the term “horse manure” in a speech, a prominent woman complained to his wife, Bess. Mrs. Truman replied, “You don’t realize how long it took me to get him to say that.”
Dwight Eisenhower could be funny, often without intending to be. Once when he was president of Columbia University, he was introduced last and at a very late hour, at a dinner party. He got up and said gruffly, “I am the punctuation – the period.” And then he sat down. He often recalled it as one of his best speeches.
Lyndon Johnson also could be funny without trying. Once when he was being escorted to a helicopter, a Marine guard said, “Mr. President, this is your helicopter over here.” Johnson replied, “They’re all mine, son.” He also liked to say, “I don’t have ulcers, I give ‘em.”
He could take a joke. Once at lunch his press secretary, Bill Moyers, was saying grace, and Johnson said, “Speak up Bill. I can’t hear a damned thing.” Moyers replied, “I wasn’t addressing you, Mr. President.”
Gerald Ford wasn’t without humor. Ford once said, seriously “If Lincoln were alive today, he’d roll over in his grave.”
It is said of Jimmy Carter that he never told a joke in his life, but he inspired jokes, and even his mother contributed. Told he was going to run for president, she asked, “President of what?”
One of the best producers of one liners in White House history, of course, is Ronald Reagan. He was in top form even when awaiting surgery after he was shot. He said he hoped the doctors were Republicans, and added, “If I’d had this much attention in Hollywood I’d have stayed there.”
George Bush made the White House comedy Hall of Fame in just one effort, when he said he hated broccoli, hated it when he was forced to eat it as child, hated it now, “and I’m president of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”