Journalist Helen Thomas has seen eight U.S. presidents come in go in her years in the White House press corps. In her new book, Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President, she looks at lighthearted presidential moments, and how laughs— often in the face of tough issues — can help shape a presidential legacy.
Excerpt from Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President : Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House by Helen Thomas Introduction:
The scene: the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner, April 2000. Cuing up is the now famous "The Final Days" video detailing how President Clinton is spending his time in the waning days of office.
Cut to press secretary Joe Lockhart, who says, "With the vice president and the first lady out on the campaign trail, things aren't as exciting as they used to be around here. In fact, it's really starting to wind down."
Cut to Clinton standing at the podium in the White House pressroom:
"There's bipartisan support for it in Congress … and at least the principles I set out in my State of the Union. If they send me the bill in its present form, I will sign it. Okay, any questions? Helen? [Then a little desperately] Helen?"
Camera pans over to me sitting in my chair, my head back. I wake up, lift my head, and see the president standing there: "Are you still here?"
A dejected Clinton leaves the podium and the camera follows him out — and in the background you hear Frank Sinatra crooning "One More for the Road."
Well, I'm still here. And, in a matter of speaking, so is Bill Clinton. But only one of us is still working at the White House.
And here it is 2001: I've covered eight chief executives so far, and now I'm breaking in a new one. For a while, Clinton was going to be the last, when I decided to hang up my daily news spurs with UPI in May 2000. But hey, someone has to show these people the ropes, and when Charles J. Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers, came calling with an offer to be a columnist, I gratefully said, Why not? After all those years of telling it like it is, now I can tell it how I want it to be. To put another point on it, I get to wake up every morning and say, "Who am I mad at today?"
I also got a call from Lisa Drew at Scribner, who made my book Front Row at the White House happen. She suggested I try another, this time a lighter look at all those presidents who have known me. When a friend of mine heard about the project, she said, "Gee, Helen, do you think these are very funny guys?"
"Well," I said, "I told Lisa it might be a pretty thin book."
Not only did I discover that on the whole, "these guys," their families, and their staffs are indeed a pretty funny lot, but given that they were funny while they were in office, I think it could be described as its own genus of humor: humorata presidentis — maybe that's what George W. Bush would call it. There also have been the poignant, the touching, and the sad moments in their lives, the kind that have given the public a human touchstone. Some things that have happened could just as well have happened to a member of your family, a neighbor, a coworker; we should remember that presidents are people, too. They just get to live rent-free for four or eight years, travel in their own aircraft, and have someone else pick up the dry cleaning.
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.
When I started to look back, remember, and check my files for this book, I was struck by the sheer number of remembrances, anecdotes, news conferences, press briefings, and by the other millions or so words uttered by presidents, first ladies, aides— and the accompanying media accounts — which made for some lively reading. I was also prompted to include events that touched the nation, made us shed a tear, left us breathless or just bewildered. I also recalled events that reminded me of the awesome power and responsibility of the presidency and the personal strength and public travails of some chief executives.
As for September 11, 2001 — we look back on September 10 as the end of the good old days, when we were carefree and confident, and we thought we were going to live happily ever after. But our world, and everyone else's, has changed, and we may never return to the America we once knew with our essential liberties intact.
I hope we encounter this brave new world with courage and a fierce intention to keep our freedoms and not lose them all in the name of national security. Benjamin Franklin said if we give up our essential freedoms for some security, we are in danger of losing both. And when all is said and done, let's hope there will be happy times again, more smiles and more laughter in the twenty-first century.
Helping me put it together was a great network of ex-colleagues at United Press International who shared coverage duties with me at the White House and across the country. They all combed their files and their memories (some didn't have to worry about their hair) and sent me a number of stories for inclusion. I thank them all for their generosity and I've named names. I hope I've done right by them.
So, let's settle back and enjoy. After all, as Samuel Butler remarked, "Man is the only animal with a sense of humor — and a state legislature."
I am often told how lucky I have been to see history in the making in the White House and to observe our leaders in their triumphs and defeats. All I can say is "Thanks for the memories, Mr. President."
From Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President : Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House, by Helen Thomas. May 2002 , Scribner used by permission.