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TIME On Politics

Just Keep 'Em Laughing

It's not Johnny Carson's late night anymore

By Jeff Greenfield

TIME This Week

(TIME, February 9) -- The lights burned late in the Oval Office as the beleaguered President sat alone with the Grand Spinmaster and bemoaned his fate.

"These comedians are killing me," he said. "Have you seen Letterman's Top 10 White House Jobs That Sound Dirty? 'Giving the President an Oral Briefing?' Do you know what Leno said? 'Another President brought down by Deep Throat?' Isn't there something we can do about this?"

The Grand Spinmaster waited a moment, then nodded.

"Yes, Mr. President."


"Give them more jokes."

The President sat stunned.

"You've gotta be kidding," he said.

"No, Mr. President," the Spinmaster replied. "They've got to be kidding. It's the best thing you've got going for you."

"How can you say that?" the President snapped. "It's the oldest rule in politics: when they start laughing at you, you're through."

"Once upon a time that was true," the Spinmaster nodded. "I remember during Watergate, when Johnny Carson made a joke about Richard Nixon's favorite ice cream: 'imPEACHment.' That was a real clue that the public had turned. And all those jokes about Gerry Ford's clumsiness and Dan Quayle's stupidity made those images stick."

"Exactly," the President said. "And now all those jokes just assume that I'm a sex-crazed lunatic. What's the difference?"

"All the difference in the world, Mr. President. You've got to remember how the culture's changed. People have been making rude jokes about Presidents forever. When Woodrow Wilson was courting his second wife, people said that when Wilson proposed, Edith was so surprised she fell out of bed. And there were jokes about the Roosevelts and the Kennedys you couldn't get on late-night cable today.

"But back then," the Spinmaster explained, "those jokes were never told in public. In the '50s topical humor was Bob Hope joking about Ike's golf swing. With Kennedy, it was Vaughn Meader and The First Family -- incredibly gentle, friendly jokes."

"But the whole culture's different now: sitcoms, daytime talk shows, Saturday Night Live. The whole idea of a President with sexual urges is just not that shocking. And in your case the country's been laughing about your...uh...alleged...uh... appetites for years. Hell, the first time most of them heard about you, you were on 60 Minutes talking about the pain you had caused in your marriage."

"But these jokes are all about stuff that's supposed to be going on now," the President said.

"Yes--but these comedians have never stopped telling those jokes. As far as they're concerned, you've been cavorting around the White House since the day you moved in. Which means," the Spinmaster proclaimed, "that as far as they're concerned, there's nothing new about all this. When they judge you, it's like they're buying stock--and they've discounted all that stuff about your private life--past and present."

The President nodded.

"So all these jokes just tell 'em what they're already thinking."

"Exactly. Pardon my bluntness, Mr. President, but you were never elected to set the moral tone of the country. Just like you said back in '92, you asked the public to hire you to work hard -- and most of them still like what's happened on your watch. It's gas lines and bread lines that you have to worry about, sir -- not punch lines."

The President smiled and picked up the remote control.

"Got it," he said, and clicked on the TV.

"Say," the comedian was saying, "you know the difference between a White House intern and the Titanic?"

The booming laughter of the two men inside the Oval Office echoed through the West Wing.

"Only Clinton could divert people's attention off a sex scandal with another sex scandal."

"If it turns out to be true that President Clinton was using the phone in the Oval Office for phone sex, that's inexcusable. The phone in the Oval Office is specifically for fund raising."

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 9, 1998

The Trouble With Monica
Inside Starr And His Operation
"THIS IS A BATTLE." -Hillary Clinton
The Keeper Of Secrets Is In Starr's Sights
The Week Feminists Got Laryngitis
Just Keep 'Em Laughing
First Lady In Chief
More Froggy Than The French
Persectued or Paranoid?
Indecent Exposure
The Netly News: All Monica All The Time
Notebook: A Good Poke In The Eye?
Al's Turn For Good News?
With A Friend Like This...
Laws That Run Amok
What's Sex Got To Do With It?
Eager Minds, Big Ear
As Washington Burns...

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