How Past Presidents Approached Time-Honored Tradition Of Political Satire

Nov 22, 2016
Originally published on November 22, 2016 6:58 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

President-elect Trump lets it be known when he'd like something and when he doesn't. And he does not like the way Alec Baldwin plays him on "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Siri...

(LAUGHTER)

BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) ...How do I kill ISIS?

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: That's from last Saturday's episode. The next morning, Trump tweeted that he had watched parts of the show, found it totally one-sided and biased and said there was nothing funny at all. But he should get used to it. Making fun of politicians is a time-honored tradition. NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes a look at how past presidents have dealt with ridicule.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Go way back. Cartoons showed Abraham Lincoln as meek or uncaring about soldiers in the Civil War.

JODY BAUMGARTNER: Political humor is an inherent part of the human condition. It's as old as man.

BLAIR: Jody Baumgartner is the author of the book "Politics Is A Joke!" He points to the very early days of "Saturday Night Live," 1975, when Gerald Ford was president.

BAUMGARTNER: "Saturday Night Live" was very cruel to Gerald Ford. There's no question about it. Chevy Chase did an impression of Ford that sort of built off of a couple of unfortunate incidents or accidents Ford had.

BLAIR: Like stumbling on the stairs of Air Force One. A big part of Chevy Chase's impersonation was physical.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHEVY CHASE: (As President Ford) And now for my second announcement.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: He'd get tangled in microphones or fall off the podium. President Ford seemed amused. In 1976, Chevy Chase was invited to emcee the annual Radio and Television Correspondents' Dinner. After he did his impression, with Ford sitting right there, Ford himself impersonated the impersonator, pulling the tablecloth with him to the lectern and fumbling with his papers. Jody Baumgartner.

BAUMGARTNER: He realized that this was all part of the package. When - you know, when you're a president, you're putting yourself out there.

BLAIR: Other presidents have felt more threatened. During John F. Kennedy's administration, an album by satirist Vaughn Meader called "The First Family" became a hit. One of the bits imagined what his family dinners with Jacqueline must've been like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAOMI BROSSART: (As Jacqueline Kennedy) I noticed that you didn't touch your salad either at dinner tonight or at dinner last night. Would you tell us why, please?

VAUGHN MEADER: (As President Kennedy) Well, let me say this about that. Now, number one, in my opinion, the fault does not lie as much with the salad as it does with the dressing being used on the salad.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Kennedy was later asked whether all this teasing produced annoyment or enjoyment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: Annoyment.

(LAUGHTER)

KENNEDY: No, they - yes, I have read them and listened to them. Actually, I listened to Mr. Meader's record. But I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me.

BLAIR: Turns out President Kennedy was so annoyed with Meader's album, he asked his press secretary to investigate. Peter Robinson is an American history professor at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati.

PETER ROBINSON: Behind the scenes, he instructed Pierre Salinger and others at the FCC to look into ways to perhaps prevent these kinds of parodies from proliferating.

BLAIR: Robinson says nothing ever came of it. Later on, Richard Nixon was so threatened by criticism that he created an enemies list which included comedians Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby. President Obama is a favorite among comedians even though they've skewered him, too. He's shown more than once that he can take a joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My ears were one of the inspirations for Shrek.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Politicians who seem humor-impaired are making themselves an even bigger target for satirists, says Jody Baumgartner. Peter Robinson adds, they risk alienating themselves from lawmakers and the public.

ROBINSON: Americans by and large hate to be accused of not having a sense of humor.

BLAIR: As Mark Twain once put it, the human race has one really effective weapon. And that is laughter. That includes being able to laugh at yourself. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.