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Presidential Humor-- The Joke May Be on Us

September 03, 1986|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

Every four years since 1960, Gerald Gardner has put embarrassing words in the mouths of reigning politicians, producing daft little photo/caption books designed to be read in about three minutes, sell millions of copies and land on the best-seller lists. All of which they regularly do.

In Gardner's "Who's in Charge Here?" series published by Bantam, you'll find Ronald Reagan explaining his plan to reduce black unemployment: "I have enlarged the NBA to 200 teams." Or Jimmy Carter looking like he was about to collapse as he participated in a distance race: "I'm gonna kill that public relations man."

Stealing His Thunder

But Gardner's been noticing a phenomenon that's been rapidly escalating the last few years. The politicos have been stealing his comedic thunder. Many of them have been getting as funny as he is.

It's no accident and it's not particularly new. Gardner himself was employed as a resident humorist and speech writer for Bobby Kennedy during Kennedy's 1964 New York senatorial campaign.

But the 51-year-old Gardner is worried. Not so much about turf rights in the presidential humor business but about the increasing ability of politicians to defuse serious issues with well-timed jokes or tailor-made anecdotes.

A Serious Book

So he's written a book--a decidedly serious book--about humor at the highest level. In the just-published "All the President's Wits, The Power of Presidential Humor" (Beech Tree Books/Morrow) Gardner analyzes the ways in which the last six U.S. Presidents have employed (or failed to employ) humor. And he concludes that political humor is "a form of voter seduction that is more insidious than dirty tricks and much more amusing."

He's not really outraged. At least he didn't seem to be on any particular crusade as he talked about the book in the study of his Beverly Hills home.

There, sitting beneath framed, autographed photographs of Bobby Kennedy and John F. Kennedy ("Who's In Charge Here? 1960" was baked inside of JFK's 45th birthday cake), Gardner appeared more the concerned observer as he discussed political comedy during the last quarter-century.

"It's become quite evident that style rather than substance has become a major ingredient in politics," said the former co-creator and chief writer of "That Was The Week That Was."

"That's why when a Mondale runs against a Reagan he loses 50 states. Most people think humor is used to entertain people the way Bob Hope does. But when a public figure employs humor, he's often using it for purposes of persuasion or manipulation. Every modern President has had a resident humorist."

Linked to Television

In his first term, Gardner noted, Reagan even hired Landon Parvin, a comedy writer who used to work for comedian Mark Russell. And Gerald Ford employed Bob Orben, who wrote jokes for Red Skelton and later became known as the dean of the White House humorists.

Not coincidentally, Gardner has noticed that the rise in presidential jesters has paralleled the rise of television in the United States. And in his book, he's concentrated on the Presidents from Kennedy to Reagan, who "bracket" what he calls "The Presidential Age of Humor." To wit:

--Reagan "uses jokes more often and more adroitly than any President since Kennedy to advance his programs, promote his views and defuse the issue of his age. Often you feel like he's ravaged old Reader's Digests (for material), but most of it is fresh."

--Carter "found his way into the White House by presenting an image of rectitude and righteousness. He was suspicious of humor as alien to his nature and to the public need. Carter's sobriety got him into the White House, and it got him out again, when he ran into the wit and geniality of Ronald Reagan."

--Ford "is an extremely decent man but he's tone-deaf to humor. He can't create humor the way Kennedy did or Reagan does, but he can enjoy it."

(Ford, incidentally, is sponsoring a "Humor and the Presidency Symposium" Sept. 18 and 19 to benefit the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. Gardner will serve on a panel there, along with such expected presenters as Pat Paulsen, Tip O'Neill, Jody Powell, Art Buchwald, Sam Donaldson, Bryant Gumbel, Betty Ford, Paul Conrad, Pat Oliphant, Bob Orben and Liz Carpenter. Also on the lineup are Gerald Ford and Chevy Chase, who, according to a schedule, will "speak together in some fashion" for 15 minutes.)

--Nixon's "mind-set was too bitter and insecure to permit the frequent employment of humor, but there were some sparkling exceptions to this vow of solemnity. There was private Nixon humor, like on the day after Kennedy's inaugural address when Nixon remarked that he would have liked to have said what Kennedy said. He was asked if he was referring to the part about 'Ask not what you country can do for you,' and said, 'No, the part about 'I do solemnly swear. . . .' "

--Johnson's "humor could be rather earthy. Going from Kennedy to Johnson, the transition was like a dissolve from Noel Coward to 'The Dukes of Hazzard.' "

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