The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
The Light-Hearted President
In her new book, When Character Was King, author Peggy Noonan takes a look at the real 'funny stuff' that went on during the Reagan Administration.
Peggy Noonan, Saturday Evening Post, 274/5, Sep/Oct 2002
"Comedy keeps the heart sweet," said Mark Twain in a philosophical mood. And it often comes from the sweet hearts, too.
[Ronald] Reagan liked anything that was funny that happened in life and would turn it into a story. He didn't care if it was off-color or innocent as long as it was amusing or witty or spoke to life as it is lived by human beings. He liked accents, brogues and patois and could do them all, had no political correctness and didn't mind if a joke was about sex, religion or war. He was one of those men who had an encyclopedic memory for jokes, but he was also possessed of a burbling brook of natural good humor and comic cleverness. If life wasn't funny enough on any given day, he'd goose it along until it was.
His humor was particularly male and of his generation, not only in its lack of political correctness and the volume of memorized jokes but also in a kind of pratfall quality, a physical gaiety. He made a speech once before the White House photographers' association and in the middle of a quiet, thoughtful passage on their impressive ability to get the picture even when surprising and shocking things are happening, he quickly, smoothly brought his thumbs to his ears, twirled his fingers, rolled his eyes and continued talking. It brought down the house. A photographer got the picture, and the next day it was in all the papers. When your detractors' main criticism of you is that you're a bit of an idiot, it doesn't really help to give them idiot pictures, but Reagan didn't mind.
On long rides home from summits in Europe or Asia on Air Force One, he'd walk along the aisles in the staff area, and when he saw a George Shultz or Paul Nitze sound asleep with his head back and his mouth hanging open, he'd quietly lean down and pantomime, "George, please, America has been invaded? He'd shake his head as George, still sleeping, would snore away.
I think he thought everyone was too serious. I think he realized today's dreadfully somber problem is next week's joke about the hell we went through last week, and he figured he'd just speed up the process. I think he was also fun all the time because the constant tragedies and injustices of life, while painful, were also by definition passing--everything changes, today is setback, tomorrow bounty. I used to wonder if he thought man doesn't deserve injustice, but then man doesn't deserve flowers, either, so what the heck; it all balances out.
One of the ways of dealing with criticism was not to get mad but to undermine his critics by agreeing with them. When they said he was lazy, he didn't deny it. He said, "I know hard work never killed anyone, but I figure why take the chance?" When word spread early in the administration that a foreign affairs crisis had begun in the middle of the night and Ed Meese chose not to wake the president, there was a scandal. Reagan's response: "I've laid down the law to my staff, to everyone from now on about anything that happens: No matter what time it is, wake me--even if it's in the middle of a cabinet meeting." When it was said that he was stupid and controlled by his staff, he'd have exchanges like this: During the PATCO strike, Drew Lewis called him a few times a day to keep him up on events as they unfolded. Sometimes Lewis needed the president to make statements that signaled certain things to union management or to America's allies. Reagan would say pleasantly, "Well, Drew, tell me what to say, and then tell me how to say it. And by the way, when you're done, tell me what I said." Lewis would laugh and say, "I need you to tell the Democrats in Congress..."
When a crisis occurred and reporters asked the president's staff how hard he was working, Reagan would tell them to pass it on that he was really burning the midday oil. During the 1988 presidential campaign, he heard one of the candidates say that "what we need is a president for the '90s" and Reagan told his friends he got all excited until he realized the guy hadn't said, "We need a president in his 90s."
Reagan had natural dignity, so he didn't have to have false dignity. People gave him funny gifts, and if they amused him, they became his props. Someone gave him a Bozo the Clown wig, bald on top with wild red hair shooting out from the sides. He put it on in the Oval Office and somberly walked into a cabinet meeting. Everyone looked up and the laughter was explosive, and Reagan cracked up and did a little routine. He didn't mean for the White House photographer to catch it, but he did. They destroyed the negatives, except for one, which is hidden in the Virginia home of a former aide who keeps it because it still makes him laugh.
He liked playfulness in others. Dave Fischer, in the early days of Reagan's presidency, usually rode in the limousine in front of the president's--the decoy limousine--when they were in a motorcade. One day someone gave Fischer one of those big Reagan masks, the kind they make of presidents at Halloween. Dave put it in his briefcase, and sometimes he'd wear it in the motorcade. He'd sit by the window, and they'd go by a big crowd, and he'd put it on. People would applaud and wave and then stop, get a good look and start to laugh. One day Reagan called Fischer into his compartment on Air Force One and said to Dave, "I think we ought to reconsider the configuration of the motorcade. A lot of people seem to think the car in front of mine has me in it, and they get all excited. And the oddest thing is, when it goes by, I see them all start to laugh."
Fischer reddened and told him what he was doing. Reagan laughed, waved his hand and told him to carry on.
There were stories he'd tell on himself. There is one he liked to tell of the big state dinner with Monsieur Mitterrand and his formidable wife. The French, of course, can be exasperating, but everything was fine and everyone looked beautiful, the gentlemen in white tie and tails and the ladies in long gowns. The Reagans and Mitterands met at the stairs for the official photo. They were then to move into dinner. President Reagan gestured to Madame Mitterrand to walk forward with him, but she stood back. He gestured again--she stood stock still. He took her arm, tried to guide her; she would not move. Finally, he called over an interpreter. "Could you tell Madame we are supposed to walk together now to the dining room?" The interpreter speaks to her, and she speaks to him. The interpreter nods, turns to the president, clears his throat. "She wants you to know that you are standing on her dress." Reagan looked down, saw his foot on her hem, moved back as they laughed and walked on.
Reagan sometimes used humor as a matter of courtesy. He knew people enjoyed laughing, and he liked to give them little gifts--that's what his jokes were, sometimes. Sometimes he used humor to make people who were nervous in his presence feel more confident. Sometimes he used it because he knew a gust of laughter gave people a chance to get their nervousness out, which is why he liked to begin his speeches with jokes.
Bill Bennett likes to tell the story of his own early days as secretary of education. Bennett was controversial. He'd been hired in part to get the agency into shape and in part because he shared Reagan's views. But when he articulated Reagan's views bluntly, he got into trouble.
"I was not a close Reagan friend or confidant. I didn't know him. I wasn't from California.... But when I got to the Department of Education, I took seriously what the president said and what I said back. I said, 'I'll try to make sense of the department.'
"The first three weeks I was making all sorts of comments. And The Washington Post ran headlines that BENNETT FAVORS PARENTS OVER EDUCATION ESTABLISHMENT, BENNETT ATTACKS TEACHERS' UNIONS, BENNETT CALLS FOR MORE HOMEWORK. You know, terribly controversial positions ....
"I was in a lot of trouble for attacking the teachers' unions, for saying one thing I said which led the "CBS Evening News" my first day in office. We said we were going to cut some of the college scholarships because of the budget. I said, 'You know, we're not going to cut the grants for the poor kids but for the wealthier kids. They're going to have to give up grants and go on loans, and some of them will have to give up loans.'
"But, you know, a lot of kids on college aid, they're down at the beach. They may have to practice stereo divestiture or two-weeks-at-the-beach divestiture--and the media went crazy. They went absolutely crazy. 'Insensitive, horrible person.'
"The kids didn't go crazy. I got tons of postcards from the beach. You know, from Fort Lauderdale: 'Hey, Bill, having a great time. Send a check, we're out of beer; we need another government check.' That sort of thing.
"Anyway, I was in very serious trouble. My wife, Elaine, and I flew out for a meeting on policy, and on the way back we got the papers at Dallas Airport. And we got The New York Times and two other papers. And there was an editorial in each one of them calling for Ronald Reagan to ask for my resignation, saying that I was outrageous, a bully. On and on.
"And I went home. There was a cabinet meeting the next week and I came in the cabinet room and there was a folder--three folders. One of the folders said, BENNETT. And I was sitting by myself and I thought some of my colleagues were inching their chairs a little away from me.
"And we finally got to the last item: Bennett. And the president--I was pretty isolated at this point, and the president started to read aloud just the headlines. 'BENNETT, A DUNCE IN THE CLASSROOM,' 'BENNETT, THE JAMES WATT OF THE SECOND TERM,' 'BENNETT MUST BE FIRED.'
"And I was sinking farther and farther in my seat as the president read aloud. And my colleagues were drawing farther away. Reagan put the last clipping in and folded it up, and he said, 'Now, that's Bill Bennett's first three weeks in office. What's wrong with the rest of you?'
"It was a great moment--it was an exhale moment, too .... But it was also one of the kindest and most considerate things anybody ever did for me .... It was a moment I'll never forget, and it taught me what a leader can do, and what it can mean to the morale of people to have done that."
When the meeting was over, Bennett went to the president and said, "Boss, thank you. Thank you very, very much."
And Reagan told him, "You know, they like to criticize me for being in show business. But one thing you learn in show business, there's a difference between the critics and the box office. Don't worry about the critics; just keep doing your job."
Bennett later summed up Reagan this way: "He was a man in possession of his own soul."
Copyright 2002 Saturday Evening Post