Gerald Ford had been in office just more than a year when the words “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” were first broadcast across the land. And almost immediately, Ford became the first president to face a question every president — including the current occupant of the Oval Office — has had to answer since: how to respond to “Saturday Night Live’s” parody at the real president’s expense.
The show’s Ford was Chevy Chase, a lanky slapstick comedian who portrayed the commander in chief as President Pratfall, a genial bungler stumbling across the world stage with a complacent grin.
That was not how the president — an avid tennis player who had been a college football star — saw himself.
“He was probably our most athletic president,” said Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen, now 84 and living in suburban Maryland. “It really bothered him to be portrayed as a klutz.”
But in public, Ford’s reaction to the “Saturday Night Live” sendups was very different: He laughed. The president invited the entertainer who skewered him to the White House. When Chase was the featured comedian at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in 1976, Ford embraced the shtick, scattering papers and silverware across the dais, mostly on Chase’s lap.
It was a strategy that most media-age image consultants would hail as a no-brainer: Hide your pique, show you can take a joke, don’t let your bruised feelings become the next story. It was more or less the way every subsequent president has handled his NBC doppelganger. Until now. President Trump doesn’t laugh.
On Sunday morning, the day after a sketch depicted what life might be like had Donald Trump never been elected, the president criticized what he called the show’s “one sided coverage” and suggested without any basis that it was defamation.
Many responded to Trump’s tweet by citing the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and expression.
Trump has reacted furiously to Baldwin repeatedly in the past, tweeting that it is “agony for those forced to watch,” and that “the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse.”
“It’s crazy,” said Democratic consultant Paul Begala of Trump’s hit-back response to Baldwin’s baiting. The tit-for-tat has, inevitably, taken on a life of its own and magnified the reach of the brief skits.
“It only makes the critique more powerful,” Begala said. Ford got it right the first time: “You just smile and move on.”
But that wasn’t the obvious answer in the mid-1970s when the near-weekly satirizing of the president on national television was a new thing. Presidential pride could have easily demanded some scolding harrumphs.
But Ford thought better.
“It was a strange time,” Nessen recalled. “It was just after Watergate, the Vietnam War was still going on, inflation was a problem. There was a general feeling in the White House that we didn’t want to spend a lot of time on this.”
Ford himself would later write that the post-Watergate mood of the country demanded a little humility from the president. It was only months before that he had pardoned former president Richard Nixon, a chief executive who placed great stock in dignified pomp.
“At the time, the media and general public still resented any hint of ‘imperial’ trappings in connection with the presidency or the White House,” Ford wrote.
So Ford dumped some cutlery on Chevy Chase in a hotel ballroom and brought howls from the crowd when he started his remarks by saying, “I’m Gerald Ford, and you’re not,” a play on Chase’s signature opening for his “Weekend Update” bits.
“I think he enjoyed giving it back a little bit,” Nessen said.
Chase’s portrayal sprang largely from a single, caught-on-film moment in which Ford slipped on the rainy stairs down from Air Force One in Austria. As aghast diplomats rushed to help, the president skidded a half-dozen steps and ended up hands-and-knees on the red carpet, not unlike Chevy Chase’s patented somersaults over tables, Christmas trees and ladders on late-night TV.
“Ford had a great personality, but the thing about his being clumsy did get under his skin,” Nessen said.
By 1977, Ford had lost to Jimmy Carter and SNL’s second president took office in the mustachioed form of Dan Aykroyd. The Carter White House was largely silent about the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time version of himself. Like Chase’s Ford, Aykroyd’s Carter was based more on personality than policy.
At first, that meant sending up Carter’s reputation as a micromanaging expert in all things from nuclear physics (or “nucular,” as both the real and parody Carter pronounced it) to Middle East diplomacy. And that was fine with the White House.
Carter speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg particularly remembers a segment in which Carter and Walter Cronkite (played by Bill Murray) take calls for the president from around the country.
In one call, a postal worker in Kansas asks how to clear a jammed sorting machine. “Vice President Mondale and I were talking about the Marvex 3000 just this morning,” Aykroyd said. In another, the president talks down an acid-tripping Florida teen, recommending vitamin B12 and listening to some Allman Brothers.
“It wasn’t just that the segment was so admiring of his competence and the depth and breadth of his knowledge,” Hertzberg said. “It was also that the segment made Carter out to be knowledgeable about and tolerant of and maybe even experienced with psychedelic drugs.”
Episodes in the later Carter years were less flattering. In one, a beleaguered Carter asks Americans to burn 8 percent of their cash as a way of shrinking the money supply and stemming inflation. In a televised address from the Oval Office, he has his daughter, Amy, give him a dollar from her peanut bank and sets it afire. The real White House made no comment.
President Ronald Reagan, an actor himself, didn’t engage much with the version of his visage coming down each weekend from New York. He was played by both Joe Piscopo and later by Phil Hartman, who memorably portrayed the Gipper as an affable doofus when in public but an order-barking, Arabic-speaking mastermind when the cameras were gone.
Probably no president embraced the mockery more than George H.W. Bush, who appeared so often with Dana Carvey on television and at charity events — “Not gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent” — that it became difficult to tell who was imitating whom, Bush doing Carvey doing Bush.
The two became and remained friends well after Bush was defeated in 1992. The Bushes invited Carvey and his wife to the White House soon after his defeat, Carvey said recently on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show.
“We really hung out with them,” Carvey said. “We really got to know them.”
President Bill Clinton, too, seemed at ease with the versions of himself that appeared during SNL seasons 18 through 26. Hartman was the show’s first Clinton. In one skit, his Clinton, sworn to stay on his diet, dragged his detail into a McDonald’s during a jog and proceeded to scarf fries and McRibs from voters’ trays as he explained his economic plan and Balkan security.
As the ’90s wore on, Darrell Hammond took over the part, and a darker, more lecherous Clinton emerged. None of it seemed to bother the real president.
“He had the thickest skin of anybody I ever knew,” Begala said. The team even played some of the earlier takes on the campaign plane. “We loved it; he loved it. I don’t remember any talk at all about pushing back on it.”
President George W. Bush said repeatedly that he didn’t mind the jabs he took from Will Ferrell’s long-running SNL imitation of the president as a chuckling, word-mangling warmonger. He even appeared at a White House Correspondents' Association Dinner with a Bush imitator; but it wasn’t Ferrell, it was comedian Steve Bridges.
Like Bush, President Barack Obama had two-terms worth of SNL shadow Obamas to contend with, starting with Fred Armisen and then an ever-graying Jay Pharoah. The real Obama may have never felt much need to push back on the comparatively calm, drama-free renditions, which the show’s actors and writers said were a lamentable (from the comedy point of view) function of a notably calm, drama-free presidency. (The show injected more emotion into that era’s Oval Office by having Dwayne Johnson play a Barack Obama transformed by anger into a Hulk-like “The Rock” Obama.)
Obama, too, let himself be upstaged by an imitator of sorts when he played straight man to Keegan-Michael Key’s Luther, the president’s “anger translator” at the 2015 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.
Like his predecessors, the 44th president had learned the power of defensive self-effacement.
“I love humor,” George W. Bush said on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in 2017, the first year of both Trump’s real-world presidency and Baldwin’s SNL presidency. “And the best humor is when you make fun of yourself.”
“Well, tell that to the president?” Kimmel said.
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