Perhaps more than any other president, Ronald Reagan understood the importance of humor in advancing his agenda, taking on opponents and connecting with the American people.
If President John F. Kennedy was reputed for his wit–the quick quip reacting to the moment–Reagan was adept at using humor in a more strategic way. Sure, he was fast with an adlib too, as when he said to emergency-room doctors after he had been shot: “I hope you’re all Republicans.” But he was best known for the way he weaved humor into his prepared remarks.
Reagan used to say that in America anything is possible, and this was proven to me by the fluke circumstances that led to my writing some of that humor for him. I had just started writing for Bob Hope, and when a piece of political satire I penned was broadcast by Paul Harvey in December 1983, it happened to be heard by Elaine Donnelly, now the president of the Center for Military Readiness.
She passed my name to White House aide Faith Whittlesey who contacted me and invited me to submit some lines of humor for possible use by the president. The resident jokester on the White House speechwriting staff, Landon Parvin–who I would later ghostwrite for–had gone to London to work for the U.S. ambassador, and Whittlesey said they needed someone to supply the speechwriters with humor.
Reagan used two of my lines in a subsequent speech, earning me a role in his 1984 reelection campaign and a relationship that lasted until the end of his presidency. Always a political animal, including a stint as a broadcast journalist, it was for me a perfect marriage of politics and humor and an honor that has so far gone unsurpassed.
Typical of his inner confidence and easy-going manner, Reagan loved jokes that poked fun at himself. But he also realized that a side benefit of self-deprecating humor, especially as he employed it, is its effectiveness in disarming criticism. When 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale accused Reagan of “government by amnesia,” the president countered with, “I thought that remark accusing me of having amnesia was uncalled for. I just wish I could remember who said it.”
When it became known that he would occasionally nod off at the White House during the day, he said, “I’ve given my aides instructions that if trouble breaks out in any of the world’s hot spots they should wake me up immediately–even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.” And, “Things have been awfully busy at the White House lately. I’ve really been burning the mid-day oil.”
He loved joking about his advanced age, once telling the White House Correspondents Dinner, “I’ve been around so long, I can remember when a hot story broke and reporters would run in yelling ‘Stop the chisels.’” And, “It was easier to run for president when I was a boy. Back then there were only 13 states.”
But he also used humor to engage the opponent head-on, for example when he told an audience, “The Democrats have a knee-jerk addition to tax increases, and every time their knee jerks, you get kicked.” And, “I’ve been losing weight on something called the Democrat Diet. The way it works is you only eat dessert on days when our opponents say something good about America.”
Cultural references were often the basis of Reagan’s humor, as when he said, “The other side’s promises are a little like Minnie Pearl’s hat. They both have big price tags hanging from them.” And, “If my opponent’s campaign were a TV show it would be ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’ You’d get to trade your prosperity for the surprise behind the curtain.”
Such lines appealed to Reagan’s instincts to go with humor that not only elicited a laugh from the audience, but also scored political points.
And unlike many politicians, he could get away with delivering a partisan line without sounding mean, thanks to his twinkle-in-the-eye, tongue-in-cheek delivery. Although he employed his acting and communications skills throughout a speech, they really shot to the fore when he was delivering humor. His timing and “feel” for a joke, whether a one-liner or long form, made him a humor writer’s dream come true.
It was old-friend humor that came to the rescue, of course, when he was on the ropes after a poor showing against Mondale in their first debate in 1984. With the media speculating whether Reagan’s age had made him unfit for office, he put the issue to bed by unleashing, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Mondale could only laugh along with the audience.
For all the hours of coaching and study that go into presidential debates, Reagan essentially won two of the three he participated in with humor–the one noted above and the debate with President Jimmy Carter with the simple but devastating line, “There you go again.”
In addition to his other achievements as president, Reagan put humor on the political map as both a campaign and governing tool, turning it from an ingredient that had been optional to one that was virtually mandatory. Seeing the way humor added to his appeal, politicians who followed in his wake realized the importance of being funny on a purpose for a change. But unlike Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, whose use of humor often seemed less than heartfelt and somewhat mechanical, and George W. Bush, who is uncomfortable doing it, humor glowed from Reagan’s very soul.
I believe Ronald Reagan took pride in his ability to make people laugh. He once phoned to thank me for jokes I’d written for the Gridiron Dinner, an annual Washington event where the president is expected to be nothing but funny. He told me he did great, adding, “Next time you see Hope tell him he would have been jealous.”
The last time I saw Reagan was May 29, 1993, at the celebration of Bob Hope’s 90th birthday, held in the spacious backyard of Hope’s Toluca Lake, California, home. I tried to make the handshake linger, knowing it was probably the last time I’d be with him. It was also the last time these two living legends, Hope and Reagan, were together on this earthly plane.
But if the president can get Mr. Hope off the golf course, they might be trading jokes right now.
–California-based Doug Gamble is a freelance political and humor writer.