Memorandum 2: Ron Reagan
From: Vic Gold
Subject: Ethnic humor
Ron, baby, just caught your latest joke about the Pole, the Italian and the Mafia at the cock fight. Unfortunately, I caught it on the ABC News. I dunno, big fella. It could be that the punch line lost something in translation, but I have this uneasy feeling the joke didn't quite come off the way you intended.
I mean, don't misunderstand, Ron, but for openers, have you checked this sort of material out with your campaign manager John Sears lately? Not that John is all that hot as a joke editor, but I remember he was on the plane 12 years ago when Spiro Agnew wrote the book on ethnic humor in national campaigns.
Remember, Ron? Of course, Spiro had an excuse. He was the new kid on the big city block, the governor of Maryland making his first run at the national press corps. That's why Dick and Big John Mitchell put Sears on the Agnew vice presidential campaign plane in '68, to keep their No. 2 man out of trouble.
Oh yeah. I think that's why Sears picked up his premature gray. First we had to the line about the "fat Jap," then the one about the "Polack." All "taken out of context," no harm intended, but the word got out that either Don Rickles or Martin Bormann was writing Spiro's material. (Come to think of it, was Rickles where you got that cock fight gag?)
Of course, Agnew had his own inimitable style of dealing with these flaps, best summed up in four words: to hell with it. While his p.r. staff fretted behind closed doors, he fumed. What was wrong with calling that traveling correspondent a "fat jap?" Hell, Spiro claimed, flying over Pearl Harbor en route to a speech in Honolulu he'd actually heard the guy say "bombs away!" Besides, everybody in Annapolis calls the reporter "fat Jap" so what was all the fuss about? As for Polack, that's what everybody he grew up with in Baltimore called Polish-Americans, so what was the big deal there?
Still, Spiro learned fast.
And by 1970 he was following at least the first of the four basic rules:
1. Never crack a smile when a reporter tells an ethnic joke.
2. Remember, everyone on the press plane or bus isn't on your side. (I know you'll find this one hard to believe, but check it out with the former vice president in Palm Springs and he'll back me up. You just can't trust the press guys to keep it among friends. They have this perverse instinct for thinking of themselves as reporters and not traveling companions.
3. If you have an overwhelming compulsion to tell an ethnic joke, the following categories have been certified as safe from backlash as of Jan. 31, 1980: 1. Thrifty Scotsman; 2. Good-natured Swedes; 3. Irrepressible Irishmen; and 4. Lovable Southern Rednecks.
Example: How do you tell the thrifty Scotsman at a cock fight? etc. 4. If you're a presidential candidate, Run, don't walk, from all conversations that begin, "There was the priest, this rabbi, and this black Baptist minister. . . ."
Odd, but I would have thought you'd learned by now, especially after what happened to Earl Butz four years ago. True, when Earl told John Dean his racist sidesplitter he had no idea Dean was working as a correspondent for Rolling Stone. But what do you know John filed the story anyway -- which just proves, you can't even trust a fellow Republican to repeat an ethnic joke in the spirit it's told.
Ron, you might find this hard to believe, too, but there was a time when presidential candidates actually went about their job without the help of West Coast gag writers.
In fact, it wasn't too long ago -- about 120 years, back when you were in grade school (Little joke about age there, Ron, but don't take offense) -- that even Abe Lincoln took a pounding in the press for cracking jokes.
As recently as 1956 Adlai Stevenson was faulted as a candidate because within those days, was still something that presidents and would-be presidents kept in the closet. The old-timers liked their candidates suitably furrow browed.
Something you might consider in view of this latest flap. Not that I don't think there's a place for some levity now and then after a hard day on the stump. But, after all, you're running for president of the United States not guest host for Saturday Night Live, and I hate to think of Jim Lake, your press secretary, spending the next six months issuing follow-up statements claiming your jokes have been "quoted out of context."
What I'm saying, Ron, in case you haven't gotten the message, is that I think you blew one last Saturday with that joke about the Pole, the Italian and the Mafia. Any presidential candidate who'd tell that story to a working newsman is the kind of klutz who'd be dumb enough to bring a duck to a cock fight.