Each president I've covered has also displayed his own kind of humor, from Kennedy's wit to George W. Bush's Middle English. Johnson had the down-home story and the stem-winder; Ford had dry observation and a pratfall or two; Reagan had the impeccable anecdote; Bush senior had his own way of "plain speaking" and a dislike for broccoli; Clinton had great timing and was smart enough to joke about how smart he is; Carter had his comebacks; and Nixon — well, I did say it was going to be a pretty thin book.
Humor is a saving grace in the White House. And if a president has a sense of humor — even better, wit — it goes a long way to lighten the atmosphere and to bring people together for a good laugh.
Of the presidents I covered in the White House, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were the best at deflecting the sometimes bitter acrimony associated with hard-driving politics and at easing the tension. Neither of these two presidents hesitated to use the weapon at their command that gave them an aura of being good-natured and still confident. They had on their side that the public liked — and sometimes adored — them.
But that didn't mean they didn't cuss out their tormentors and have a few choice profane words for those who crossed them. Even Kennedy had to admit at a news conference that he had said, "My father always used to say that businessmen were SOBs." He said that after Roger Blough, president of U.S. Steel, had gone back on a promise not to raise steel prices. For choice words that are not spoken in public, listen to the tapes of private conversations of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Self-deprecating humor has come into style in recent years with presidents. It is a surefire winner, especially before press audiences such as at the Gridiron Club, the White House Correspondents Association, and the Radio-Television Correspondents Association dinners. If the joke is on the president, all to the good.
It disarms his usual detractors and conveys a sense of good sportsmanship. In other words, anything for a laugh. But, hey, it works and warms up the crowd with a heavy dose of bonhomie.
How does the saying go? Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone. In the years I covered the White House, there have probably been more somber, grim times to recall. But the humor has always been appreciated. We in the press have not been immune. We have often been the butt of a joke, probably not repeatable. Some, such as LBJ and Nixon, have called us names. President George W. Bush tags reporters with nicknames. In his wonderful book Humor and the Presidency, Gerald Ford noted there are two ways to become an authority on humor: "The first way is to become one of the perpetrators. You know them: comedians, satirists, cartoonists, and impersonators. The second way to gain such credentials is to be the victim of their merciless talents. As such a victim, I take a back seat to no one as far as humor is concerned."
In the foreword to Humor and the Presidency, Edward Bennett Williams wrote: "Humor is indispensable to democracy. It is the ingredient lacking in all the dictatorships in what seems to be an increasingly authoritarian world. It is the element that permits us to laugh at ourselves and with each other, whether we be political friends or foes." I couldn't agree more.