Ned Sherrin, the British wit who created the original "That Was The Week That Was" for the BBC in 1962, once told me that political satire doesn't work in America. "In America," he explained, "politics is already satirical."
He may have been right. More than 20 years later, the closest thing to satire on television is C-Span, and, as Gerald Gardner's new book amply demonstrates, much of our sharpest humor is still attributable to people who cut their satiric teeth in the '60s. A few of them--Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, the indefatigable Art Buchwald, cartoonists Paul Conrad, Jules Feiffer, Gary Trudeau, and Pat Oliphant--are still out there, soldiering on in the heat of the prophet motive.
For the rest, this compendium of political humor seems to suggest that when the satirical '60s evolved into the egomaniacal '70s, satire was supplanted by that most conservative of comic devices, the insult joke--often unpersuasively disguised as an aphorism. Almost everybody knew one, or so it appears in this book, as a star-studded cast of comics, sycophants, sages, and sundry media pundits pelt you with political zingers like a berserk pinball-machine.
With this many jokes to freight, a smooth, profluent narrative is very difficult to achieve. Gardner has himself done time as a joke writer, and his passive/aggressive style betrays some of the restless anxieties of a monologist at a Mafia wedding.
There are moments of genuine delight, a number of which belong to Mort Sahl. Now in his late 50s, Sahl is still a lot pithier than most of today's comedy clubbers, who seem transfixed by the trivia of pop culture. You can watch Sahl grow in these pages, and as his prejudices begin to mellow and blur, so his perceptions visibly sharpen.
Sahl has always preferred not to use the slick, mechanistic one-liner, but when he does, there is invariably more going on in it than meets the ear. It was Sahl who commented recently that George Bush's campaign slogan should be "Ich bin ein Contra," and that the Republican candidate's lack of appeal to women is because he reminds them of their first husbands.
Of the other quotable sources, PBS' Mark Russell stands in eloquent judgment of the depleted state of political humor on the commercial airwaves--while Tom Lehrer's subversive verse reminds us of a form that, literally, vanished with him.
It is left to Eric Goldman to make a comment on the '50s that is equally applicable to the '80s: There prevailed, he said, "a humorless, sanctimonious, stultifying atmosphere, singularly lacking in the self-mockery that is self-criticism."
"The Mocking of the President" supports the common wisdom that our Presidents are criticized less for their egregious political blunders than for their aberrations of style. Political realities, of course, turn on the way things look, not on the way things are, and in our culture of narcissism, this often distorts their reflection. The result is that some politicians are singled out for particularly rough treatment (Carter, Ford, Johnson) while others, Reagan for instance, may on closer scrutiny be more deserving of satiric attack.
Comedians loved to flay L.B.J. for his corn-fed parochialism, but they often revealed their own elitism in the process. Take this jibe, please: "President Johnson has issued the first Executive Order in his plan to beautify America. He has forbidden his daughters to drive in a convertible."
On any question of just deserts, Nixon is still the one. The old dissembler haunts these pages like the Ghost of Christmas Past. A combination Machiavelli, Uriah Heep and Malvolio, Nixon is the satirist's dream: lubricious, manipulative, devious, insecure, fulsome and paranoid. The perfect whipping boy for our age of born-again Babbitry, he will surely be with us always, murmuring platitudes about "America's role" to anyone who will listen.
My favorite Nixon story, and there are many in this book, happened at San Clemente, just after the final lese majeste of the smoking gun. In a break during the famous David Frost interviews, Nixon steered Frost onto the patio. Always eager to seem like one of the boys, but helplessly ill-at-ease when it came to small-talk, Nixon inquired: "Well, David--done any fornicating lately?"
For all the enjoyment Gardner's book is sure to give political joke junkies, and I'm one of them, it has some annoying deficiencies: For one thing, there is too much repetition--hardly excusable in this age of helpful software. For another, the art of the cartoonists is described, not shown, and this further exacerbates the feeling that "The Mocking of the President" has been rushed, somewhat cheaply, into print. At $17.95, they, and we, deserve better.
It must also be said that this book would benefit considerably from an index. Basically, it is a collection of jokes, and indexing would have given them a much more accessible function for future students of political humor.
As it is, and as good as many of them are, the sheer profusion of one-liners finally erodes one's tolerance for them. Americans love one-liners. Short, sharp, and easily assimilated, they are the fast food of humor. Instantly gratifying but low on lasting nourishment, the one-liner satisfies both the shortness of our attention span and our national passion for the quick fix. They are often funny, but only rarely, despite Gardner's insistent claims to the contrary, are they satirical.
With Dukakis adding frisson to the notion of American politics as Greek tragedy, one wonders if Aristophanes might not be too controversial for prime time in 1988, and whether Swift was not a century prescient when he wrote, "Satire is reckoned the easiest of all wit, but I take it to be otherwise in very bad times: For it is as hard to satirize well a man of distinguished vices, as to praise well a man of distinguished virtues."