THE MOCKING OF THE PRESIDENT
Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand. -- Mark Twain
Americans loved to laugh with Will Rogers, but in 1928 he crossed a line. He made fun of the president.
Hosting a radio "Victory Hour," Rogers cut to the White House where President Calvin Coolidge "would say a few words." Rogers then donned a New England accent, did a commercial for Dodge Motors, and addressed the nation: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am supposed to deliver a message every year on the condition of the country, I find the county as a WHOLE prosperous. I don’t mean by that, that the WHOLE country is prosperous, but as a WHOLE, it's prosperous. That is it's prosperous as a WHOLE. A HOLE is not supposed to be prosperous but..."
America was not amused. Many thought Coolidge had endorsed Dodge. Others were surprised that Rogers, often a guest at the White House, would make fun of his host. Rogers never made that mistake again, but these days some make a career out of it.
The mocking of the president has become an American past time. The nation that once hesitated to chide its chief executive has grown into a nation hungry for the latest zinger from John Oliver, Samantha Bee, or SNL. Reasons for the mockery vary but all point to one grim truth -- presidents are too much with us now. They just won't shut up. They're asking for it, some more than others.
Time was, however, when a humorist did not take on a president lightly. Mock George Washington? Other than wooden teeth, where would you start? Start with a print of Washington riding into the nation’s capital on an ass. Leading the ass was aide David Humphrey, hence the caption: "The glorious time shall come to pass/when David shall conduct an ass."
For the next 150 years, presidents came and went. But because few Americans ever heard a president speak, the mockery was based on policies (read: "dull") or appearance (read: caricature). Andrew Jackson was caricatured as "King Andrew the First." Lincoln was shown with ape-like ears. Teddy Roosevelt? Mark Twain called him "clearly insane," but the public mostly laughed at that enormous grin. And Dorothy Parker, told that Coolidge died, asked, “How can they tell?”
Not until the 1950s did the president become an open target. The first salvos were fired by the Founding Father of stand-up satire, Mort Sahl. Striding the stage with a newspaper under his arm, the snide, fast-talking Sahl became the '50s hottest comedian. And by the late 1950s, young comedians from Woody Allen to the Smothers Brothers were showing up to watch Sahl shred all respect for the White House. When the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane, Eisenhower dragged his heels. Mort Sahl did not. "One of our aircraft is missing, and one of our presidents..."
Sahl was sometimes on TV but most often seen in night clubs. The mocking of the president did not go prime time until the meteoric rise of a single album -- "The First Family."
Vaughan Meader was a struggling comic who looked a little like JFK and sound a lot like him. On October 22, 1962, as Kennedy addressed the nation about missiles in Cuba, Meader recorded sketches supposedly set in the White House. Several record companies turned down the album, one calling it "degrading to the president." But a small label took a chance and that November, "The First Family'" changed the way we mock the president.
Here were the Kennedys as a sit-com family, Jackie whispering, Caroline rambling, the infant John John babbling. And at the head was theeee, uhhh, president, saying good night to his wife...
JACKIE: Family, family, family. Jack, there's just too much family. Can't we ever get away alone?
JFK: Jackie, I promise we'll get away tomorrow. No more, uhhh, family for awhile. I promise. Now, uhh, turn off the light. Good night, Jackie.
JACKIE: Good night, Jack.
JFK: Good night, Bobby. Good night, Ethel.
BOBBY AND ETHEL: Good night, Jack. Good night, Teddy.
TEDDY: Good night, Eunice, good night Peter...
"The First Family" became the fastest selling album of all time --2.5 million copies in one month. Meader's JFK became what Tina Fey's Sarah Palin and Alec Baldwin's Trump would become -- the fun house image of the original. Jackie was outraged but JFK liked it, telling a press conference, "I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me." For the last year of Camelot, Meader was JFK. So in December 1963, Lenny Bruce stood on a night club stage in silence, for a full minute, then said, "Boy, is Vaughan Meader fucked."
Meader descended into alcohol and depression but he had pioneered a presidential mockery that was painfully accurate. Soon came David Frye, who did not just sound like presidents but twisted his face to look like them. Frye's kindly LBJ was amusing but his shifty-eyed Nixon was uncanny, and a little scary. Mocking the president no longer crossed a line. Even CBS, which censored “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” gave the brothers permission "to satirize the president, so long as you do it with respect."
Respect, however, was not what satirists had in mind. By the late 1960s, after riots, war, assassinations, nothing seemed merely amusing. Mockery of Nixon reached new heights in stand-up, in the National Lampoon -- "Would you buy a used war from this man?" – even on the “Tonight Show.” "Nixon is the only president whose formal portrait was painted by a police sketch artist," Johnny Carson joked.
In the wake of Nixon, the fresh new "Saturday Night Live" saw Chevy Chase as President Gerald Ford fumbling and falling, calling out "Down, Liberty" to his stuffed dog. Soon came Dan Ackroyd doing "Jimmuh Cahtuh," a president so cool he could talk a caller through a bad acid trip.
No president since has dodged the send-ups. Respectful no more, the mocking of the president is as American as, well, humble pie. Even the most sanctimonious president, Will Rogers figured, ought to be able to take a joke. "I have cracked quite a few jokes on public men here," Rogers told his audiences, "both Republicans and Democrats. I hope I have not given offense. In fact, I don't believe any big man will take offense."
Some presidents, of course, are bigger than others.