In his Nov. 8 op-ed column, my friend Mark Shields provides more evidence that Washington is the elephants' graveyard of jokes -- except that after old jokes get here, they don't die.
He wrote that "Washington continues to laugh at the apocryphal story" about how Newt Gingrich, at a lunch with Gen. Colin Powell, asked: "Colin, why do people take such an instant dislike to me?" And Powell supposedly retorted, "Because, Newt, it saves them time."
Shields should know just how "apocryphal" that story was. According to an April 18, 1997, Style article, Shields himself used the same joke. Only that time he had Bob Dole hitting Gingrich with the punch line.
That was at what your reporter called "a black-tie bash," which Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press" also attended. Apparently he liked the joke. Last December he told the audience at the Alfred E. Smith dinner in New York that "legend has it" that John Sununu, after being forced to resign as White House chief of staff, had "approached the revered first lady and poured out this heart." "Why do people take an instant dislike to me?" he wondered. And Barbara Bush, a la Dorothy Parker, zapped him with "Because, John, it saves time."
Sometimes the teller attributes the rapier wit to himself. For example, on Feb. 11, 1996, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told a University of Iowa audience that Gingrich had put the question to him and he (Harkin) had delivered the zinger. Back on March 25, 1991, Bob Strauss had told a Gridiron dinner audience that he'd hit Budget Director Richard Darman with it.
This year, William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky's original lawyer, seems to have been regaling West Coast juries with it. According to the Reliable Source of Aug. 9, he played straight man, telling the juries that he'd asked his wife the question and "without batting an eye" she gave the answer.
On the Internet, in a collection of lawyer jokes, a jolly Arizona law firm -- Broenig, Oberg, Woods, Wilson & Cass -- makes an attorney the foil.
The joke goes back at least a decade, to when Andrew Lloyd Webber purportedly gave Alan Jay Lerner the opportunity for the withering comeback. But an Internet column from Ely, England, in July suggested a more likely source: An old episode from the TV show, "M*A*S*H." Frank served up the question, Trapper the riposte.
-- William Ringle