White House writers’ jokes can get cut by tragic current events

Washington buries paper with manic speed and brutish efficiency.

It needs warehouses to stash all the stuff, the secret files, the humdrum boilerplate, the memos and markups.

Somewhere in this archaeologically dense, ever-spreading pile exist a few glum, little personal archives, forgotten artifacts of what might have been. We could call them the Presidential Archives of the Shtick That Never Was.

(Live updates from White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend)

The Shtick Archives are the files of White House comedy writers, and they get filled with jokes that presidents never told because of a recent national tragedy, rendering one-liners and sight gags inappropriate. President Obama might be facing one of those moments Saturday night. He and his advisers will have to decide whether to crack jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner or play it straight, with memories of the horrors at the Boston Marathon and West, Tex., still fresh.

At least twice in recent memory, presidents have opted not to go heavy on the jokes at the annual dinner following a tragedy: in 1995, after the Oklahoma City federal-building bombing and in 2007, after the Virginia Tech massacre.

In 1995, White House comedy writer Mark Katz had put together a script so that President Bill Clinton could make jokes about a round of document declassifying that had been in the news. Clinton, famous for his love of fast food, was going to crack that one of the documents that would be declassified showed he had “personally lobbied the FDA” to release the recipe for McDonald’s secret sauce, said Katz, who shared some of the contents of his Shtick That Never Was archive. Clinton also was going to ask for the unveiling of Henry Kissinger’s little black book and for the declassification of paperwork that showed the Apollo 11 mission “took off with four men, but came back with five.” The fifth, Clinton was going to say, was James Carville.

But, Katz says, Clinton adviser Dick Morris “put the ixnay” on the jokes and the president ended up delivering a short, inspirational speech that perfectly fit the moment, a week and a half after a bombing at Oklahoma City that cost 168 lives.

Clinton told the audience that he’d practiced his routine and had “all this humor ready,” but he decided against trying to be funny. “The Book of Proverbs says: ‘A happy heart doeth good like medicine. A broken spirit drieth the bones.’ And I believe that,” Clinton told an audience that had gone silent at the shift in tone. “I think you will understand and I hope my wonderful comedy writers will understand if I take a few moments tonight not to be too funny.”

Katz watched in admiration, even though the lines he’d crafted would never be read. “They arrived at the right answer,” says Katz, who now runs a company called the Soundbite Institute, which he says “deploys humor in the name of strategy.” “You left that room feeling like we have a president who understands everything that is happening to us.”

Landon Parvin says he felt the same way in 2007 when President George W. Bush stepped to the podium at the White House correspondents’ gathering less than a week after 32 people were massacred at Virginia Tech. Bush gave a brief and heartfelt speech. Parvin, who’d also written jokes for Bush’s father and for Ronald Reagan, had prepared an elaborate routine for the younger Bush.

The president was going to wade into the audience to ask questions of certain distinguished guests. He was going to be trailed by his chief of staff, Josh Bolten. His first stop was going to be at the table where Justice Samuel Alito, whom Bush had appointed to the Supreme Court the year before, was sitting.

The Washington Post’s Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts reflect on some of the most memorable moments from past White House Correspondents Dinners, and how the president’s chosen jokes can become cultural tidbits. (Jason Aldag and Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

“What do you do?” Bush was going to ask the justice.

“This question is right up your alley,” Bush had planned to say to Alito. “It’s a question about our judicial system. Who are the three judges . . . on ‘American Idol’?”

At this point, the song “Tijuana Taxi” was supposed to blast over the speakers.

“You can guess,” Bush was to tell Alito. “I do it all the time.”

Then the president was going to pop over to NFL star Reggie Bush and ask his name.

“Reggie Bush?” the president was supposed to say. “Reggie — Mom and Dad never told me. . . . Finally, a Bush with a 90 percent approval rating.”

And then he was going to quiz historian Doris Kearns Goodwin about the activities of Abraham Lincoln before he was elected president. Whatever Goodwin said, Bush was all set with the punch line: “Correct. I would’ve also accepted, ‘Shopped for big hats.’ ”

Alas, we never got to hear Dubya say it.

But what’s saddest of all is the reason why.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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