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With an Endless Supply of Clinton Jokes, Can This Be the Era of Bad Feelings? : Attitude: Americans have long told jokes about their President. But Clinton's are starting early in his term and have an unusually nasty edge.

April 11, 1993|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — President Bill Clinton is on the verge of real trouble. Sure, he just had a nice summit with Boris N. Yeltsin. But Clinton is already running a fever on the Washington Ridicule Chart. The political air is thick with jokes and stories that deride the First Family. This humor is a lot of fun. It is also poisonous, propelled in good part by the envy and moral pretentiousness from which we cannot seem to rid our public life.

Granted, we Americans have always been ready for a good guffaw at the expense of our Presidents. That's what democracy is for, isn't it? But over the past 30 years, laughing at the President has turned from a national pastime into a big business. The stories have gotten dirtier and the laughter more bitter.

Cast your mind back, for example, to the days of President John F. Kennedy. We thought we were sophisticated when we laughed at the Kennedy family. There was a whole record, by Vaughn Meader, poking fun at Bobby's nepotism problem, Jackie's hairdo and Caroline's rubber duckies. To listen to that record today is to hear innocence and an archaic affection for a President. This feeling was a measure of what people did not know or want to know. We did not tell stories then about compulsive sexual behavior or illicit presidential connections with the Mafia.

Lyndon B. Johnson got a lot of this ordinary joking as well. People chuckled at his Texas accent, his ears and his daughter's pulchritude or lack thereof (Johnson fired a White House employee who told a particularly indelicate Luci-and-Lynda joke). But this humor remained peripheral to his presidency.

When feeling toward Johnson grew rancorous, the reason was Vietnam, which not many people thought was funny. This nothing-to-laugh-about climate also surrounded Richard Nixon, whose enemies hated him so much that they found it hard (give or take an Spiro T. Agnew joke or two) to work up a sense of humor about him.

Since Nixon, the presidency has gotten a rougher ride from the storytellers. They portrayed Gerald R. Ford as an incorrigibly accident-prone President--just one long slide on the banana peel. Jimmy Carter was also done in by the new satire. He had to face a special jealousy on the part of Democrats toward a leader who is not the right kind of Democrat. He also had to face "Saturday Night Live," offering funnier and more sustained political parody than this country had seen for a century.

So, we heard Hamilton Jordan jokes (Remember: "I've always wanted to see the pyramids"?), Peter Bourne jokes, Miz Lillian jokes, Amy jokes and Billy jokes. They coalesced around a theme: These Georgia people were crude, ignorant and unfit to govern the country. This image clung to Carter's presidency and defined it in the minds of too many voters.

It looked for a time as if Ronald Reagan would permanently dissipate the foul-smelling cloud that Washington humor had become. Not that Reagan wasn't a humor target. No, he was staple fodder for the late-night talk shows, where you could usually hear a joke about how some world problem or other was so vexing that Reagan had lost many afternoons' sleep over it. And Nancy Reagan was a magnet for this stuff. People pointed the derisive finger at her designer clothes, her alleged lust for power and her use of astrology to make presidential decisions.

Nancy Reagan was not very good at defusing the animus behind this laughter. But she gave it a try, in front of the Washington press corps, with a self-parody to the tune of "Second Hand Rose." Reagan himself was expert enough for both of them. His self-deprecating answers to the Reagan jokes deflated them in a way Kennedy would surely have admired.

But in the Bush years, the attacks on Vice President Dan Quayle were the largest attempt in living memory to destroy an official through ridicule. The grave is still fresh, so one need not even mention the many little laughing clods of earth that gradually buried him. Much of the stuff was not true; no matter.

Yet, even when compared with this wholesale pie throwing, the current attacks on Clinton, seem especially dark. There are military jokes like the one from a sailor on the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt: Have you heard that some guy threw a beer at Clinton? Don't worry: It was a draft beer. Clinton dodged it.

Then there are derisive Hillary stories. Have you heard that Clinton wants six more Secret Service agents assigned to Hillary. After all, if anything happened to her, he'd have to become President. Other stories deride the Clintons' claim to be a happily married couple. Some say these stories are true, leaked by the Secret Service. Others do not think so, but don't care. In one story, the President calls his wife a rude name based on a body part. In another, she throws a book at him (sometimes it's the Bible, carried on symbolic foray to church on Sunday.) Or, she physically attacks (in some versions a Secret Service agent has to restrain her).

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