Huffington Post: An All-Star Panel of Pundits Weighs in on America's Most Comical Presidents

Roundup: Talking About History

Mark Twain wrote that exposure to good satire -- that is, savage wit at the service of passionate conviction -- makes citizens less likely to be "shriveled into sheep."

So there will be considerably less bleating coming from the American people during the campaign ahead. Because six years after 9/11, six years after Ari Fleischer warned Americans they "need to watch what they say, watch what they do," six years after Graydon Carter declared the death of the age of irony, and 278 years after Jonathan Swift made his Modest Proposal that Irish children be sold as food, we find ourselves living in a Golden Age of political satire -- Maher, Stewart, Colbert, who eviscerates Bush by defending him, and Borat holding a very disturbing mirror up to America.

In June 2005, soon after the Huffington Post launched, Danielle Crittenden, one of our original bloggers, began to publish her satiric take on the secret IM sessions of, among others, George W. Bush ("Kickass43"), Bill Clinton ("Ladeezman42"), Tony Blair ("Sxybritguy10"), and Laura Bush ("Hot_Librarian"). The Secret IMs proved very popular, and also proved -- Fox's short-lived Half Hour Comedy Hour notwithstanding -- that political humor is not the exclusive domain of progressives.

Earlier this month, Danielle published The President's Secret IMs, a collection of her HuffPost series, to very favorable reviews. To help celebrate, we asked political observers on both sides of the aisle to weigh in on the question: Who was our most comical president? And by comical, we mean the Oval Office occupant who best lent himself to being satirized.

Their varied selections follow below. Give them a read then let us know in the comments section who you think the most comical president was.



Lincoln was the most comic president. He had a natural and gifted sense of the comicalness of people, of their flaws and tendencies and nature. His humor was often broad -- he liked to read aloud in dialect -- but his deepest subject was human nature, who we are. This is the great subject of all non-scientific and non-mathematical geniuses. Ronald Reagan was comic too, and like Lincoln he used jokes to make or underscore a political point. (We all know examples. Is the federal government too costly and overstaffed? There was the guy at the Bureau of Indian Affairs who was found sobbing at his desk. What's the trouble? He raised his head. "My Indian died.") But Reagan's humor often had a mordant edge, a genial blackness. He liked jokes like this. "The teacher was trying to impress on her students that winter had come, and they should try to avoid colds. And so she told a heartrending tale about her onetime little brother. As the story went, her little brother was a bright and fun loving boy, and he went out with his sled and stayed out too long, caught cold and then pneumonia, and three days later he died. When she finished with the tale there was dead silence in the room. She thought she had really got through to them, when a voice in the back said, 'Where's the sled?'" JFK was ironic and quick and also had a mordant edge. There was a whole world of political experience in his reply to the boy who asked him how he became a war hero. "It was easy," he said, "they sank my boat." Once, early in the administration, Kennedy aid Arthur Schlessinger was called, in a newspaper column, "corruscatingly brilliant." JFK heard about it and said in a pleasant way that maybe they should all keep in mind that a hundred thousand votes the other way and they'd all be corruscatingly stupid.

Here's an odd thing -- or maybe it isn't odd, and maybe some of HuffPo's contributors have a thought about it. I do not know of a single picture of Kennedy or Reagan, or I think any other modern president, in which he is dissolved in laughter, in which he's clearly cracking up at something someone else has said or done, or he has said. They smile a great deal but they don't dissolve in laughter, and in the memoirs of those around them I can't think of an instance in which a president howled with laughter. They look merry sometimes or amused, but beyond that they are contained. I am referring not just to official White House photographer pictures but informal photos, pictures taken by friends. It seems to me there is something odd in this -- men with strong comic sensibilities who love and wield humor but don't get slayed by it. I urge HuffPo readers to send in any pictures they might have or know of of presidents cracking up. (I wonder if Harry Shearer has a thought on how professional comedians relate to humor. Do they, because it is their profession, come to see humor as a thing that is used more than experienced? When a joke becomes material is it no longer funny?) ...
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