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On Presidential Comedy, as Intended or Inadvertent

Comedy is the most subjectively judged of all the lively arts, and there’s no accounting for what one laughs at.
We’ve always considered Laurel & Hardy comedic geniuses, and always thought The Three Stooges boringly low-brow and grotesque, even though they were telling the same profoundly true and universally funny slapstick joke about some poor schmuck getting hit on the head with a two-by-four or falling into a deep hole. One of our formative childhood heroes was W.C. Fields, whose cynical and sneering and subtly self-loathing sense of humor used to show up on the late-late-shows we were allowed to watch during summer vacations, but for the most part we find the cynicism and sneering that dominate today’s comedy shallow and self-righteous and unfunny.
So it is with the related yet significantly different matter of presidential wit. Presidents aren’t expected to be stand-up-comics-in-chief, nor should they be, but rhetoric is required for the job, as is establishing a personal connection with the people, as well as having a realistic grasp of the absurdity of one’s self and the world one lives in, and a certain amount of sense of humor is essential to pull that off. The job also occasional entails speaking at such events as the Al Smith Memorial Dinner or the Gridiron club’s annual review or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, or other events where a few moments of ghost-written comedy is expected to be delivered with a certain panache, but in these cases one can usually account for one’s tastes by one’s political opinions.
President Donald Trump’s most loyal fans have always found him downright hilarious, cracking up at his mocking mimicry of a reporter’s physical handicap or nicknaming a shorter rival “Little,” but we always rolled our eyes under our high brows and heaved a sigh and lamented what had become of both comedy and the presidency. Trump’s impolite and unfunny routine at the campaign season’s white-tie-and-tails dinner in New York City during the campaign, which crossed the long-standing tradition of gentle joshing and to “Crooked Hillary is so crooked” jokes, which the oh-so-polite crowd of fellow well-helled New Yorkers booed, and although the hicks in the sticks loved it the reviews were mostly negative. After that Trump skipped his administration’s first White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner, where all the “fake news” media invite some smart-ass comic to lampoon the president and expect his to respond gentle joshing and self-deprecation. Trump did accept an invitation to the Gridiron Club’s latest annual schmooze-fest, though, and he got surprisingly mixed reviews.
The gathering Gridiron Club of elite Washington correspondents is more discreet than the White House Correspondents’, whose nationally televised dinner rivaled the Golden Globes for ratings during President Barack Obama’s years, but of course Trump knew that his performance in front of an audience of journalists wasn’t going unreported. He eschewed the Crooked Hillary bits, never once mentioned “fake news” in his gentle joshing of the press, and generally disarmed his knife-sharpening critics. He reportedly got a deservedly big laugh from the tough room by saying that his staff worried he couldn’t pull of self-deprecating, but he assured them that “Nobody does self-deprecating humor better than me.”
Which is pretty darned funny, because it was heretofore so untrue, and we give credit to whomever came up with the line, and expect that it was Hope Hicks’ parting gift to talk Trump into saying it, but the hard-core fans probably prefer such golden oldie punch lines as “Build that wall” and “Lock her up.” They won’t notice, though, as the self-deprecating shtick wasn’t videotaped, but maybe this does signal a pivot to the old humble routine. After all the cynical and sneering late-night comics had a ball with footage of the wind and Marine One’s rotors blowing Trump’s careful comb-over away and revealing a large and unusual bald spot down the back of Trump’s head, the president recently regaled an actual rally crowd but turning around to show off his more carefully-coifed neck-to-forehead, and the audience ate it up, and the critics were largely disarmed.
This surely won’t end Trump’s endless shock jock insult comic shtick, though, and none of it rises to our admittedly old-fashioned standards of presidential wit. We’re old enough to remember President Ronald Reagan’s amiable and downright Andy Griffith-esque homespun humor, even after he’d been shot in the chest, and we’ve read enough history to regard President Abraham Lincoln as the gold standard. Lincoln was the fellow who came up with the “You can fool some of the people some of the time” aphorism, as Trump lives by in his condensed reading of the text, and the teetotaling Trump would have never come up with the line about buying all the Union generals whatever brand of whisky Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was drinking.
The several-inches-taller-than-Trump Lincoln didn’t resort to calling the diminutive Democratic incumbent Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas “Little Stevie” during their famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, but instead mocked his gangly appearance with the stilly-wide quoted “A man’s legs should be just long enough to the reach the ground.” Many years later the then-hilarious Woody Allen wrote a droll piece for The New Yorker that had Lincoln’s gag writer suggesting a man’s legs should be just enough to reach his torso, as the visual image of the disembodied torso reaching toward the earthbound legs was funnier, and although we consider that an improvement on the original we don’t expect either level of wit these days.
Trump also had a line about a North Korean overture to start talks on the scary nuclear situation over there, and his arguably brusque response, but no one was quite sure if that was meant as a joke or not. Trump frequently blurts out things that sound quite scary at first listening, but another news cycle later the White House press secretary explains that c’mon, he was obviously kidding, and the die-hard fans crack up, and we roll our eyes under our high-brows and sigh about what’s become of comedy and the presidency.
The night before the Gridiron Club’s fancy-schmantzy show Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in front of a crowd of steep-dues-paying fan club members, and riffed about how his good friend Chinese dictator Xi Jiping recently repealed China’s term limits on dictators, and how we ought to try that here, and of course the knife-sharpening critics made something of that. He was just kidding, of course, so the critics looked slightly ridiculous, but Trump has often said that he’s not really kidding when he’s kidding, and both the die-hard fans and that knife-sharpening critics both know that.
There are some things that more traditional presidents don’t joke about at all, except maybe in the mot private circumstances, but somehow it seems to be the conservatives who want to do away with such essential traditions. As much as we like Trump’s recent self-deprecating turn, we worry that it doesn’t reflect any serious self-evaluation of his mean cocksure soul, and his die-hard fans are no doubt hoping the same thing.

— Bud Norman

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A Not So Fond Farewell

President Barack Obama gave his farewell address on Tuesday night, so at least we’ve got that going for us.
President-elect Donald Trump once again grabbed all the attention, of course, with his indignantly “tweeted” denial of some juicy new allegations that were reportedly included in the intelligence community’s much-debated reports to Congress and other officials concerning Russia’s alleged meddling in the past election. A maybe true and maybe not true dossier of allegations was compiled by a reportedly respected ex-British intelligence official, and is now splashed all over the internet, and it mentions Russian prostitutes and some very kinky sex acts, as well as several presumably more hygienic but no less newsworthy contacts that Trump’s business and campaign officials had with Russian officials, and it’s undeniably more irresistible conversation fodder than another one of Obama’s orations.
All that cloak and dagger and kinky sex stuff will play out over the next several days or weeks or months, though, if not much longer than that, and in the meantime we feel obliged to take note of Obama’s speech.
For the past nine years or so we’ve been hearing about what a wonderfully eloquent orator Obama is, but we were once again unimpressed. The language is well-crafted enough by comparison to his successor’s schoolyard taunts and constant interjections of “believe me” and “OK?” and “that I can tell you,” but that’s damning by faint praise, and up against an Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King or any other first rate rhetorician it’s not at all memorable. Even his most awe-struck admirers are hard-pressed to remember any line he ever uttered quite so iconic as Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address coinage of “military-industrial complex” or John Kennedy’s “bear any burden” shtick or even George W. Bush’s pithy “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and what they do come up with about “no red states or blues states” and “hope and change” and “yes we can” and that one about the sea levels falling now sounds faintly ridiculous after eight long years of his tiresome speeches.
Which left poor Obama, just 10 short days away from the seemingly inevitable inauguration of Trump, with the difficult job of making the case that all that hope had not been misplaced. He had a friendly audience in his adopted hometown of Chicago, all revved up by a soulful rendition of the the National Anthem, and he bounded on the stage with a rock star’s roar and a rock star’s rote greeting to a certain local neighborhood and a whole of thank you thank you very much, followed by some lame self-deprecating humor about being a lame duck, then he started waxing eloquent. He did so well enough that his still-ardent admirers who still feel that hope were probably tugging at their eyes, but any eyes that have been keeping a more unblinking watch on the past eight years were rolling.
There was some nostalgic talk about his young and idealistic days as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, and how he learned that “Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” That same south side of Chicago is presently so disorganized that it has a murder rate that would shock the denizens of your average third world hellhole, but so far the survivors haven’t gotten involved and engaged and demand change from Obama’s associates at City Hall, and somehow we got the sense that he wasn’t urging them to start now.
He followed that up with some rousing stuff about the wisdom of the founding fathers and their belief that we are “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” At any rate it would have been rousing if he hadn’t spent the past eight years giving speeches about the country’s racist and sexist and classist origins, and steadfastly defending abortion rights, and restricting the citizens’ liberty in numerous ways, and generally making life miserable for anyone who was just trying to live it. There was some more rousing-for-the-faithful stuff about onward and upward to the more perfect union, along with a list of liberal goals that have been achieved over the years.
Even Obama had to admit that “Yes, our progress has been uneven,” and sometimes even “contentious,” and there was no talk about ocean levels falling or a new era of hope and change or any of the other stuff so many people were swooning for starting back about nine years ago. Instead, Obama tried to argue that things had worked out even better than promised. He touted the end of a Great Recession and “reboot” of America’s automotive industry and eight straight years of job growth, the shutdown of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and new relations with Cuba and of course the oft-cited death of Osama Bin Laden, along with a health care plan that insured another 20 million Americans, and boasted that “If I had told you that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.
Even if that were all true it’s still setting the sights a little bit lower than during the messianic ’08 campaign, as far as we’re concerned, but without looking anything up and despite the florid language we were ready to dispute almost all of it. The Great Recession of ’08 did indeed come to an end, but recessions have always come to an end and usually with more robust employment gains than during the past below post-World War II averages, and who’s to say that whoever bought out General Motors would haven’t hired more workers? Iran’s nuclear weapons program is still on schedule and has a few billion dollar extra in its coffers thanks to Obama’s largesse, our new relations with Cuba are far too chummy with a communist regime for our tastes, and Obama saying he succeeded in killing Bin Laden where Bush had failed is like Nixon claiming credit for getting to the moon where Johnson and Kennedy had failed. That 20 million insured figure is by almost all other accounts vastly overstated, and includes a lot of people stuck on Medicaid and forced by buy overpriced insurance they don’t need, and it’s clearly one reason job growth has been so sluggish, and so many more people are stuck paying exorbitant rate increases and swelling budget deficits to pay for it that the guy who promised to repeal Obama’s signature piece of legislation wound up winning.
At that point Obama had to chide the crowd for booing the guy who did wind up winning, and we’ll give him credit for doing that, and he pledged a peaceful transfer of power and gave some props to George W. Bush for doing him the same solid. That was followed by a lot of talk exhorting Democrats to continuing be Democrats, and racism and climate change being very bad, and peace being better than war, along with some bragging about the oil boom he did everything he could to thwart, and a whole lot of blather that will be little noted and soon forgotten, to borrow a phrase from a more memorable orator. It didn’t convince us that we’d been wrong all along, and that Obama really was the Messiah we’d been told, but we suppose the true believers liked it, even if they can’t remember a single line of it today.
At this point we’re quite agnostic on the question of whether Trump really did pay those Russian prostitutes to perform those kinky sex acts while on a Moscow business trip, or whether any of those other dealings actually occurred, but we’re quite convinced he’s also no Messiah. All we can say at this point is that we can’t say we’re looking forward to four or eight more years of schoolyard taunts and constant interjections of “believe me” and “OK?” and “that I can tell you,” but at least the rest of Obama’s ponderous speeches will be more easily ignored as the forgettable asides of an ex-president.

— Bud Norman

A Gettysburg No-Show

Seven score and ten years ago President Abraham Lincoln gave one of the greatest speeches in history, and the anniversary of his short address at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, will be rightly honored today with a memorial at the same hallowed location. Conspicuously absent from the roster of speakers is the current president, and there has been much speculation about why.
Many of the speculators assume there is some noble and brilliant reason, of course. A CNN report on President Barack Obama’s no-show at the event — which appeared under the non-committal headline “Snub, or Smart?” — notes that the White House spokesman offered no explanation for the snub and then goes off in search of academics to explain why it’s smart. The best they could come up with was Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, who helpfully explained that “By not going, President Obama lets that speech stand on his own. If he went, it would all be about him.”
With all due respect to Professor Richardson, humility and an aversion to attention seem unlikely explanations for anything Obama might do. Obama has never been uncomfortable with the favorable comparisons to the Great Emancipator that his more fevered supporters used to make back in headier times, having launched his first presidential campaign in Lincoln’s adoptive hometown in Illinois and taken his oaths of office with Lincoln’s well-used Bible, and he has rarely missed an opportunity to give a speech. He notably declined an invitation to speak an anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that would have meant traveling all the way to Germany just to give a speech about great Ronald Reagan was, which would have been too onerous a burden to bear, while Gettysburg is only a few million dollars of travel time away and would have afforded Obama plenty of opportunities to speak about himself. The opportunity to be at the center of something other than the Obamacare debacle for a news cycle must have been especially tempting, and it is therefore hard to explain why he might have passed it up.
More cynical minds than Professor Richardson’s, such as ours, are left to speculate that Obama concluded the event would not be all about him, and that the world would little note nor long remember he said he there. Those gushing claims of Lincolnian greatness look more and more ridiculous with each passing day, and were ridiculous to begin to with, so we can’t help suspecting that somewhere deep in his hubristic psyche Obama has a hard-earned insecurity that the juxtaposition of himself and Lincoln would not make a good photo-op.
In Obama’s stead the audience at the memorial observance will hear remarks by the newly-fledged and little-known Secretary of the Interior, but it is unlikely that she will be able to top Lincoln’s efforts at the site. This is well enough, as the country should reflect on Lincoln’s inspiring exhortation to “be here dedicated to to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Such reflection won’t serve Obama’s purposes, and perhaps that’s why he won’t be there.

— Bud Norman