For Obama, a changed tone in presidential humor

Jay Leno can tease the president all he wants, but Obama is offering some barbs of his own. Both men are attending the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, the annual black-tie dinner in Washington.
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010

Barack Obama, the Insult Comic President, was up to his old shtick Saturday night.

Breaking with presidential punch line tradition for the second consecutive year, Obama dropped zinger after zinger on his opponents and allies alike at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Obama went all Don Rickles on a broad range of topics and individuals: Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, presidential advisers David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, the news media, Jay Leno, and Republicans Michael Steele, Scott Brown, John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Except for a mild joke pegged to his falling approval ratings, Obama mostly spared Obama during his 14-minute stand-up routine. Palin, he said, calls Twitter and Facebook "the socialized media." He dubbed Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican Party, "the Notorious G.O.P." The newly enacted health-care law, the president joked, has "hundreds" of secret provisions, such as one covering people in Massachusetts who've suffered "short-term memory loss" about the state's own efforts to reform health care. "So good news, Mitt!" Obama said of Republican critic and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. "Your condition is covered!"

The president elicited a few shocked "oooohs" from the audience of 2,600 when he told this joke about Charlie Crist, the Florida governor who is defecting from the Republican Party to run for the Senate: "Odds are that the Salahis are here," he said, referring to the gate-crashing Virginia couple. "There haven't been people who were more unwelcome at a party since Charlie Crist."

The outer-directed tone of the material, which was credited to Axelrod, White House speechwriter Jon Favreau and ex-Hillary Clinton speechwriter Jon Lovett, was in keeping with Obama's inaugural voyage as presidential joker last year. Making the rounds of the traditional spring dinners, the president cracked wise on just about everyone but himself. Typical Obama line in 2009: "We have a lot in common," he said of House Minority Leader John Boehner, a man with an odd perma-tan. "He is a person of color. Although not a color that appears in the natural world." (Boehner was the butt of a similar joke on Saturday: The new health-care law, Obama said, will exclude the cast of "Jersey Shore" and Boehner from "the indoor tanning tax.")

Obama's derisive tone surprises and dismays some of the people who've written jokes for presidents past.

"With these dinners you want the audience to like you more when you sit down than when you stood up," says Landon Parvin, an author and speechwriter for politicians in both parties, and a gag writer for three Republican presidents (Reagan and Bushes I and II). "Something in [Obama's] humor didn't do that," he said Sunday.

Parvin advises his political clients to practice a little partisan self-deprecation when they make lighthearted remarks: "If you're a Democrat, you make fun of Democrats and go easy on the Republicans; if you're a Republican, you do the opposite," he says.

Presidents past have generally hewed to that tradition, even when they were under intense criticism or were deeply unpopular.

At the height of the media frenzy over Bill and Hillary Clinton's involvement in the Whitewater real estate deal, Clinton opened his remarks at one of the press dinners by saying: "I am delighted to be here tonight. And if you believe that, I have some land in northwest Arkansas I'd like to sell you."

Former Clinton speechwriter Mark Katz calls Obama's humor "a work in progress." Katz recalls that before Clinton made his first White House Correspondents dinner speech, he asked his speechwriters why there weren't more jokes about his political enemies. Clinton's speech drew criticism after he inserted his own somewhat hostile jokes.

"He took aim at people he should not have aimed at," says Katz. "He learned his lesson and took greater aim at himself. He learned that the right joke about yourself can be as Machiavellian as anything Machiavelli dreamed up."

During his first term, George W. Bush did a bit in which he explained what he really wanted to say on the many occasions when he mangled his words. On another occasion, White House speechwriters hired a Bush look-alike to exchange snappy banter with the real deal. One of Bush's best-received performances was the one in which Laura Bush interrupted his remarks to offer her own comic take on her husband. "We never had a sense that those evenings were for settling scores," says Parvin.

But self-effacing humor can blow up like a cheap cigar, too. In 2004, Bush did a bit in which he showed a series of photos of himself evidently looking for something in the White House. "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere," the president said, providing mock captions for each shot. "Nope, no weapons over there! . . . Maybe under here?" Democrats quickly pounced, criticizing Bush for making light of his own justification for a war that had killed hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis.

Generally, though, presidents have taken the self-deprecation route to steal some of their critics' ammunition and to suggest their self-confidence. "I don't know how you can go to these events and not do it," says Robert Orben, a Hollywood comedy-writing legend who also has written gags for politicians.

One of Orben's long-ago employers, President Gerald R. Ford, used "arm-around-the-shoulder humor." The material was designed to unite and not divide -- a good thing, too, since Ford became president amid the turmoil of the Watergate affair. Orben recalls a line he wrote for Ford in one of his first public speaking engagements as president following Nixon's resignation.

"So much has happened since I accepted your kind invitation to be here today," Ford said. "At that point I was America's first instant vice president, and now I find myself America's first instant president. The Marine Corps band is so confused, they don't know whether to play 'Hail to the Chief' or 'You've Come a Long Way, Baby.' " Maybe not so hilarious now. But back then, at a moment of high tension for the nation, the line got almost 30 seconds -- a veritable lifetime -- of roaring laughter and applause. Obama couldn't touch that on Saturday.

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