"It's Panic City," says Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), one of six politicians who'll turn comic tonight at the Washington Press Club's annual "Salute to Congress." "I keep on coming up with ideas and everyone tells me they're improper. I thought Sen. Hayakawa could take a tip from Strom Thurmond and marry Brooke Shields, but then my staff said, 'You can't mention other members' names,' and I thought, 'Oh, currrr-ruuuumb!' Now I'm at ground zero."
She sighs. "I'm looking for a good contagious flu bug. Do you know any?"
The rush to be funny is on. Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Calif.) has called West Coast joke writers. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) is rummaging for one-liners he wrote on old napkins. Mike McCurry, press secretary to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), says flatly: "We're desperate."
The desperation shows in a discarded one-liner. "I can tell that tonight's event is a prestigious one," a staffer wrote for one of the six. "I pulled up and saw Al Haig backing his tank into Jim Watt's bulldozer."
You can bet they all watched the president's speech last night, listening as much for raw material as they did to the state of the Union. But what of the recession, unemployment, budget cuts? "Not a funny time," assesses Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), a well-known wit.
Handicappers figure tonight's subjects will take in the unbalanced budget, tax-exempt schools and maybe even the presidential chances of Walter Mondale and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Anything is game. But if the six aren't ready, Dole advises them, "I just wouldn't show up."
The press club dinner, a 1,400-person intramural event, is only the most immediate reason for comic anxiety. Fiedler, Schroeder, Simpson, Moynihan, Reps. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Kent Hance (D-Tex.) are on the line tonight. But all year long, politicians prowl through Washington, California and the daily papers for a commodity increasingly crucial to the state of their art: humor.
"They think -- 'I gotta humanize myself. I will tell jokes,' " says Vic Gold, a one-time speech- and joke-writer for Vice President George Bush and former vice president Spiro Agnew. "Most of your politicians nowadays are frustrated stand-up comics. It gives them a sense of power or something to stand up there and have people fall over themselves."
It works the other way, too. "People are anxious to laugh," says Landon Parvin, who writes speeches and jokes for Reagan. "Here is this powerful man, the president of the United States, about to come into the room. And he'll get up to the podium, and when he says something slightly funny, he'll get a laugh. It releases the tension."
Abraham Lincoln was a fine story-teller, but it was John F. Kennedy who gave birth to the one-liner, the staple of modern political humor. Partly it was a survival tactic for 20th-century presidents who have to compete with television, most particularly Johnny Carson. Some, like Ronald Reagan, do it well. ("I just got a note that Prime Minister Begin has annexed Steubenville, Ohio," he said at Washington's Touchdown Club recently.) Some, like Gerald Ford, don't. And Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson (D-Wash.) once told a Nixon pardon joke, inadvertently substituting the "Pardon me!" punchline with "Excuse me!" instead. Joke writers stress that telling them is not necessarily a teachable art.
But tonight, sure as the trillion-dollar national debt, they'll try. It is a chance for grace under pressure, for proving that beneath the drab politician lies a sparkling wit. "It becomes -- 'How will they act in a situation that is alien to them?" says Bob Orben, the former Gerald Ford joke writer who now charges $1,500 per day for his services. "How will they assess, prepare, compete? Suddenly, it assumes an importance beyond the fun event."
At last year's Press Club dinner Reagan was a hit. He told jokes about the end of his presidential honeymoon and, in the self-deprecating style refined by the best joke tellers, made fun of his age. "I know your organization was founded by six Washington newspaperwomen in 1919," he said, pausing expertly. "Seems only yesterday."
"You can gain an advantage -- and enhance your acceptance around here -- from that performance," says Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), another acknowledged wit who fondly remembers the time he told this joke at a Washington press dinner in the mid-'60s:
A politician goes to an Indian camp and says, "Vote for me and I will bring you schools and hospitals!"
"GOOMWAH!" say the Indians.
"Vote for me and I will give you shoes and clothes!"
"Vote for me and I will put gas heat in every tepee!"
The Indian chief is so pleased that he wants to present the politician with a gift. "Come down this way and I'll give you an Indian pony," the chief says to the politician. "But be careful not to step in the goomwah."
"That was sort of the night I became identified as a big hitter in the Washington humor banquet stuff," says Udall, who, in fact, is.
"If tomorrow there were going to be a press roast," says Parvin, "as sure as I'm sitting here, I'd get a call about 4 o'clock from some panicked staffer. Once a guy came in the day before and said, 'Could you take a look at this?' Well, I sat down. He had a sheaf of papers and I went through it and ah . . . Well. It was one of those things where maybe the fellows had gone out the night before to a bar, and the next morning it just wasn't funny. Well, I took out the inside lines that nobody was going to get. As I waved goodbye, I felt like I was waving goodbye to somebody on the Titanic."
The Lead Balloon
There have been plenty of disasters. Former New York City mayor John Lindsay became infamous for telling off-color jokes at a Gridiron Club dinner in the '60s. Old-timers say that former Ohio senator Robert Taft once hurt his presidential chances by flopping at an earlier Gridiron. And Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter's former press secretary, irritated some of the White House press corps in 1978 when he made them the target of after-dinner jokes with a venomous bite.
Sometimes the best humor comes from seemingly impromptu one-liners. When Frank Mankiewicz was working on George McGovern's presidential campaign, someone came up to Mankiewicz and said that John Lindsay, one of McGovern's opponents in the primaries, had just called himself the "populist" candidate. "That right?" Mankiewicz replied. "He must be the first populist who plays squash at the Yale Club." During Henry Kissinger's prolonged bachelorhood, Gloria Steinem once said: "I am not now and have never been a girlfriend of Henry Kissinger's." He later replied: "But you notice that she did not say, 'If elected I will not serve.' "
Reagan took the off-the-cuff one-liner into new territory when, after being shot outside the Washington Hilton last March, he reportedly looked up at doctors and said: "I hope you're all Republicans." Although former White House political director Lyn Nofziger was thought by some to have put out that line, the White House insists it was the president's own.
One of the best techniques is surprise. Carter was not widely regarded as an enormously funny president -- except for one White House correspondents' dinner in 1979 when he stunned the crowd with his superior timing. "I'm here substituting for Jody Powell," he said, alluding to the previous year's dinner when Powell had been acerbic. He spaced his words carefully ". . . You remember . . . Jody . . . Jody Powell?"
Then he took note of his own new hair style, recently parted on the opposite side. He said he had discovered John Connally's secret.
"I noticed a few months ago that he parts his hair on the left side, and I decided -- all by myself -- to remove this insidious Republican advantage with one bold stroke of the comb. You probably surmised that this shift from right to left is only for the primaries and then, for the general elections, right down the middle."
It didn't exactly come naturally. "He spent practically that whole day over in his little office there with his tape recorder," recalls Hendrik Hertzberg, Carter's former chief speechwriter. "He was working, over and over again. He had all the raw material in front of him, and then he constructed this monologue out of it. At the end of the day, he sent over the tape and all we did was transcribe it onto little cards for him to read. Some people say that was the beginning of his political turnaround -- the one that got him the nomination but not the election . . . He proved he could be as funny as Jack Benny, and then, having done it once, he thought he never had to do it again."
Any joke writer, presidential or professional, will tell you that being funny is plain hard work. Although the Carter crowd did have regular gag-writing sessions in the basement of Nick & Dottie's restaurant across the street from the White House, most good jokes don't come from sessions like those on the old "Dick Van Dyke Show." Writers say it's long and lonely.
"You don't talk about it," says White House speechwriter Parvin, who says Reagan does most of his own material. "You just sort of do it. You're sort of by yourself."
One necessary personality trait may be a sense of the absurd. "Did you ever really watch a candidate shake the hands of 200 strangers?" Kennedy aide Dick Drayne once said. "It's like sex, it's very serious while you're doing it, but if you stand back and look at what's going on . . ."
Now, Drayne says, "I wouldn't know how to tell you to try to write a joke. I just sit down. Once you dissect humor, it dies."
Not all joke writers have the luxury of time. "Lemme give you an example of the type of joke I did for Spiro Agnew," says Vic Gold. "We're flying into L.A. and Agnew says, 'I need a one-liner for this speech.' And I think, 'Jesus Christ.' So I flip open the paper and I see that Sam Yorty -- remember Sam Yorty? -- had announced for president. Which was funny in itself. So then I took a standard type of joke that was going around at the time -- 'I've got some good news and some bad news.' And I changed it around to 'I've got some unsurprising news and some surprising news. The unsurprising news is that Yorty has announced for president' (and you gotta remember that Sam Yorty was being criticized for never being in town). 'And the surprising news is that he did it in L.A.' Now, if I tell you that joke now, you look at me with a straight face. But when we told the joke in L.A., and they're all complaining about Yorty, they fell off their chairs."
The good Washington joke usually requires topicality. White House Chief of Staff James Baker told an audience a few days after the December 1981 issue of the Atlantic Monthly went on sale that the last thing he did before joining Reagan aboard Air Force One that morning was to "make sure that Dave Stockman was bound and gagged."
Reagan, confronted with criticism about the B1 bomber, said: "How did I know it was an airplane? I thought it was vitamins for the troops."
E.B. White once wrote: "Here in America we have an immensely humorous people in a land of milk and honey and wit, who cherish the ideal of the 'sense' of humor and at the same time are highly suspicious of anything that is non-serious. Whatever else an American believes about himself, he is absolutely sure he has a sense of humor."
Tonight they're on. Some may bomb. Some may not. Some might even get cold feet, which at least one joke teller thinks isn't a bad idea.
"When in doubt," says Sen. Robert Dole, "I'd stay home."