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Commentary : Why Were These Men Laughing?

September 27, 1986|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Mort Sahl called it three days of "biting political compliment," and that, better than any other comment, characterized last week's "Humor and the Presidency" symposium here.

No one attending knew what to expect, but former President Gerald Ford, the symposium's host, set the stage in his program note. "Throughout history," he wrote, "humor . . . has carried us over many difficult obstacles and through many difficult times . . . so enjoy yourselves. . . . Friendship and laughter are what we seek."

But the good ol' boy network of in jokes, parochial references and Washington clubbiness began to rise in direct proportion to the decline in objective discussion of humor as a political tool--perhaps the 20th-Century equivalent to 19th-Century rhetoric.

The general confusion over the symposium's focus threw the majority of panelists and speakers onto their own meager devices, and the discussion became organized around the idolatrous theme: "We come not only to snicker at Gerald Ford, but to praise him."

Ford had been thrust into the presidency, as Sahl observed, "to heal the American people."

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vietnam and Watergate, America was psychically ravaged. So it seemed a kind of poetic justice that this ex-president, who had suffered more ridicule as a klutz than any other 20th-Century national leader, should have the courage to host and attend every session of a symposium exploring the use of humor in political life and how well, or badly, it serves public perception.

"Ten years ago it hurt," Ford said of the jibes at his expense. "Now, it's another matter."

The symposium was held at the Gerald R. Ford Museum, a low-slung building that sits across the Grand River from this city. After an address by Edward Bennett Williams, noting how humor is a reflection of democracy (so much for other forms of government), the conference got under way in earnest, and promisingly, with a panel on "A History of Humor and the Presidency."

Bryn Mawr Prof. Arthur Dudden quoted Malcolm Muggeridge's line, "All humor is in bad taste," Henry Adams' "A study of the Presidency is enough to disprove Darwin" and Ambrose Bierce on politics: "The conduct of public affairs for private gain."

Dudden categorized humor as an academic would and should, but when moderator Pat Paulsen came on with a faintly derisive "Gee, I didn't know that," the tone of the conference was set.

Jim Free, spokesman for Washington's Gridiron Club, spoke of this country's most popular modern Presidents--both Roosevelts, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Ford and, of course, Ronald Reagan, whom Free fondly quoted as once saying, "I don't worry about the deficit. It's big enough to take care of itself."

Author Gerald Gardner noted how humor is "a wonderful device for the President to employ to get away from issues" and "as a way of handling hostility." And the humor doesn't have to be by Presidents, it can be about Presidents. "It's been said of Jimmy Carter," Gardner recalled, "that his idea of self-deprecation was to insult his staff."

Occasionally you heard a line about how humor sustains (Lincoln is quoted as answering a complaint about his levity, "Were it not for my little jokes, I couldn't bear the burden of this office"); how it smoothes relations, particularly between politicians and the press, and how at its highest it acts as a tool, in Mark Twain's words, "to challenge the self-righteous and criticize the unjust." Speech and comedy writer Bob Orben was particularly pointed in his remarks on how humor "dissolves the barriers of power."

But most of the symposium consisted of anecdotage and one-liners. A sampler:

--Mark Russell spoke of Ronald Reagan Jr. dancing in his underwear on "Saturday Night Live." "Neither party is noted for good taste, but at least Billy Carter kept his pants on."

--Fred Barnes, senior editor at the New Republic, cited the Washington press corps motto, "If you don't have anything nice to say, let's hear it."

--Dick Grunwald of the San Diego Union, former White House correspondent, spoke of covering Henry Kissinger, "who said he was going to nominate me for the Pulitzer Prize--in fiction. . . . Kissinger once asked his Secret Service guard, 'I was wondering what you would do if someone tried to kidnap me.' The response was 'Don't worry, Mr. Secretary, we'll never let them take you alive.' "

A gala black-tie dinner and entertainment satisfied the $500-a-plate audience's need for amusement. Robert Klein, Chevy Chase, Art Buchwald, Paulsen, Russell and Sahl, a satirical group called Capitol Steps and the Army Herald Trumpets and Chorus all gave a show, taped for an upcoming Home Box Office airing. Rep. Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, D-Mass., even came out to sing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" to Betty Ford.

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