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The Jokes on the President

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 1998; Page D01

The scripted ridicule started during Wednesday night's "Daily Show" on the Comedy Central network, when host Craig Kilborn smirked:

"Looks like President Busy-Pants is at it again."

Last night, talk show host Jay Leno added a second-day salvo to the emerging scandal, in which former White House intern Monica Lewinsky allegedly claimed to have had a sexual affair with President Clinton:

"So this is Day Two of Jailbait-gate for President Clinton, or, as they're calling him now, the Unabanger," Leno riffed to a hooting audience. "After five years of investigating and $35 million, Kenneth Starr has found the smoking gun, and it's apparently in President Clinton's pants."

Once again, the presidency is a punch line.

For Clinton, sex jokes are nothing new. Ever since he began campaigning for the presidency, amid allegations that he had an extramarital affair with Gennifer Flowers, Clinton has been a large, slow-moving target for jokes about his fidelity, his sexual appetite, even his personal anatomy.

Comic attacks on the chief executive's weaknesses are part of the modern presidency: Ford's clumsiness was spoofed by Chevy Chase on "Saturday Night Live," Nixon's jowls by impersonator Rich Little, Reagan's naps by stand-up hacks everywhere.

What is different these days is the speed and viciousness of the attacks on Clinton – almost instantaneous and with scorched-earth intensity. The electronic media that Clinton used so effectively as a campaigner are now biting back like a pack of overbred Dobermans.

Leno's Wednesday monologue included this dart: "Only President Clinton could divert attention from a sex scandal with another sex scandal." He followed with a suggested title for Hillary Rodham Clinton's next book: "It Takes a Village to Keep an Eye on My Husband."

Presidential scholars say Clinton's disemboweling in the popular culture reflects the transformation in the past three decades of how the public views the presidency.

"What's changed is that the deference that developed around the presidency in the 20th century, that insulated the president for a while, seems to be rapidly crumbling since the '60s," says Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at Columbia University. During the first two-thirds of this century, the public saw the president as the man who led them through two world wars and the Cold War, Brinkley says. It would have been unpatriotic to criticize the commander in chief.

Not anymore.

"I think that, to the extent the president is no longer the protector of the Free World, the office has lost some of the gravitas it once had," says Robert DiClerico, a professor of political science at West Virginia University and author of books on the presidency. "I think Bill Clinton once said, 'I envy John Kennedy – he had an enemy.'"

The way we treat presidents and presidential candidates today – mercilessly – is not terribly different from how we did 100 years ago. While Grover Cleveland was campaigning for his first term, it was revealed that he had sired a child out of wedlock. Republican opponents chanted, and opposition papers printed:

"Ma, ma, where's my Pa?

Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"

What is different today are the almost limitless venues for vitriol. In 1898 a newspaper might have run a nasty caricature of William McKinley along with a scathing editorial. Perhaps he would be denounced as a scalawag in Congress. But popular culture was barely a whisper of today's buzz and thunder.

Almost immediately after this week's Clinton scandal broke, the Internet was scorching. Television comedy writers were furiously scribbling. Radio deejays were cracking jokes. Even the motion picture industry – perhaps the loudest trumpet of pop culture – benefited from great timing.

In Hollywood yesterday, entertainment insiders snickered over the surreal way in which reality, or at least alleged reality, appeared to be following fiction. The film "Wag the Dog," in current release, is based on the premise that the president is caught doing something unseemly with a teenage girl in the White House. In the movie, the president's spin doctors mount a fake, Hollywood-produced war in order to divert public attention from the scandal.

"The irony of it is the review that The Washington Post gave us was that nothing like this could ever happen," says Simon Halls, a publicist for the film. (It should be noted that the United States has not launched any military exploits in the past few days, real or fictional.)

But the movie does mirror certain elements of real life, in the way the media descended on the Clinton scandal – quickly producing high school yearbook photos of Monica Lewinsky.

Another much-anticipated film about the presidency, "Primary Colors," which will open as originally planned in March, also deals with a president's foibles. The film, starring John Travolta as a careful study of President Clinton, is based on the best-selling book by New Yorker writer Joe Klein.

Over the past half century, the film industry has mirrored Americans' decreasing reverence for the presidency.

In 1942's "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the patriotic story of vaudevillian George M. Cohan, the president is treated so reverentially that he is not even shown, lurking only as an unseen, Olympian presence. Henry Fonda played Honest Abe in a 1939 hagiography "Young Mr. Lincoln," and a fictional moral pillar of a president in 1964's "Fail-Safe."

But 1964 also saw what may have been the first wickedly satirical film to attack the presidency – "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." In it, Peter Sellers plays a president who's, at best, an altogether typical man and, at worst, a pawn of his military.

Since then, the parade of evil, criminal or inept presidents – including Richard Nixon in "All the President's Men" – has been so steady that last summer's "Air Force One," in which the president is portrayed as a brave, virtuous man, seemed like a breath of fresh air.

Yesterday afternoon, Comedy Central writers were coming down from the adrenaline high of writing gags for last night's show. The day before, they penned: "The president reportedly fired back that a year-and-a-half affair with Lewinsky would have been impossible, since he would have become bored and cheated on her after six months."

Yesterday, they were salivating over the events of the past two days.

"We can't write it any better than it's actually happening," said executive producer Madeleine Smithberg. "Clinton is simply 'Ernest Goes to Washington.'"

But there could be dark days ahead for the satire show, she warns. It takes next week off and returns to the air Feb. 2. By then, they are worried that the show's favorite whipping boy may no longer be around.

"It would be a horror to come back to President Gore," she said.

Staff writers Annie Groer, Richard Leiby, Peter Carlson and Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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