Presidential humor is only a half-step from dad humor, which in the world of comedy is considered light treason. But we've tried to find at least one zinger from every U.S. president, to mark President Obama's final set of stand-up comedy at his eighth White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday. Some zingers have less zing than others. Some are flat, some are apocryphal, some are just threats and some, in the case of Warren Harding, are quaint, loving references to the chief executive genitalia. But they are presidential, by definition, and therefore funny, by acclamation.
Barack Obama, at the 2012 White House correspondents' dinner
"I have a lot more material prepared, but I have to get the Secret Service home in time for their new curfew."
George W. Bush, at the 2006 White House correspondents' dinner
"Cheney's a good man. He's got a good heart. [Pause] Well, he's a good man."
Bill Clinton, at the 2000 White House correspondents' dinner
"Over the last few months I've lost 10 pounds. Where did they go? Why haven't I produced them to the independent counsel? How did some of them manage to wind up on Tim Russert?"
George H.W. Bush, at the 1989 Gridiron Club dinner
"People say I'm indecisive, but I don't know about that."
Ronald Reagan, to protesters at UCLA
"'Make love not war'? By the looks of you, you don't look like you could do much of either."
Jimmy Carter, riffing at the 1979 correspondents' dinner about the old White House indoor swimming pool that Richard Nixon covered over to build the press room
Press Secretary Jody Powell "has been trying to persuade me to reopen the White House swimming pool — suddenly. . . Any of you that survive would, of course, have permanent swimming privileges."
Gerald Ford, at a boozy Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner in 1974
"At a time when funds for the defense budget may be cut, it's comforting to see so many of the big guns from your industry still getting loaded."
Richard Nixon, in Ms. magazine in 1971 when asked about women's lib
"Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I wouldn't want to wake up next to a lady pipefitter."
Lyndon Johnson, on Ford
"So dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time."
John F. Kennedy, responding to criticism that Robert Kennedy wasn't qualified to be attorney general
"I don't see anything wrong with giving Bobby a little legal experience before he goes out on his own to practice law."
Dwight D. Eisenhower, when asked to name one big decision that Nixon helped make as vice president
"If you give me a week, I might think of one."
Harry S. Truman, on Adlai Stevenson
"He's no better than a regular sissy."
Franklin D. Roosevelt, when told his wife was in a prison
"I'm not surprised. But what for?"
"Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt."
Calvin Coolidge, on Hoover
"That man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad."
Warren G. Harding, referring to his penis, which he named Jerry, in a 1915 love letter to his mistress Carrie Fulton Phillips
"Jerry — you recall Jerry, whose cards I once sent you to Europe — came in while I was pondering your notes in glad reflection, and we talked about it."
"A conservative is someone who makes no changes and consults his grandmother when in doubt."
William Howard Taft
"Some men are graduated from college cum laude, some are graduated summa cum laude, and some are graduated mirabile dictu."
Theodore Roosevelt, on Taft
"A flub-dub with a streak of the second rate and common in him."
William McKinley, to his outgoing secretary of state, William R. Day, after he expressed sadness for leaving.
"Well, Judge Day, every change so far in the office of secretary of state has been an improvement!"
"No man has ever yet been hanged for breaking the spirit of a law."
"When I hear a Democrat boasting himself of the age of his party, I feel like reminding him that there are other organized evils in the world older than the Democratic party."
Grover Cleveland, who had two separate administrations but just not enough good quips to fill them both, so we turn to a joke told not by but about Cleveland during the 1884 race, concerning rumors that he had fathered a child out of wedlock
"Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House. Ha ha ha!"
Chester A. Arthur, dishing at a Republican banquet about how his ticket won Indiana
"If it were not for the reporters, I would tell you the truth."
James Garfield, on the presidency
"My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?"
Rutherford B. Hayes, when told that a congressional uprising wanted to remove him and install Democrat Samuel J. Tilden
"Mr. Tilden will be arrested and shot."
Ulysses S. Grant, when told that Charles Sumner, a righteous senator from Massachusetts, didn't believe in the Bible
"No, he didn't write it."
"Washington, D.C., is twelve square miles bordered by reality."
"If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?"
James Buchanan, to his liquor merchants regarding their small bottles of bubbly
"Pints are very inconvenient in this house, as [champagne] is not used in such small quantities."
Franklin Pierce, when asked about a president's duties after leaving office
"There's nothing left. . . but to get drunk."
Millard Fillmore, declining an honorary degree from Oxford (and possibly poking fun at Andrew Jackson's acceptance of one from Harvard)
"I have not the advantage of a classical education, and no man should, in my judgment, accept a degree he cannot read."
Zachary Taylor, when a Whig first suggested that Taylor run for president
"Stop your nonsense and drink your whiskey!"
James K. Polk, on Buchanan
"Mr. Buchanan is an able man but. . . sometimes acts like an old maid."
John Tyler, on his death bed
"Doctor, I am going. Perhaps it is best."
William Henry Harrison
"To Englishmen, life is a topic, not an activity."
Martin Van Buren
"As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it."
"John Calhoun, if you secede from my nation I will secede your head from the rest of your body."
John Quincy Adams, on Jackson
"A barbarian who cannot write a sentence of grammar and can hardly spell his own name."
James Monroe, to Alexander Hamilton
"You are a scoundrel."
James Madison, on his death bed
"I always talk better lying down."
Thomas Jefferson, on John Adams
"He is as disinterested as the being who made him."
John Adams, on Alexander Hamilton
"That bastard brat of a Scottish peddler!"
George Washington, in a 1788 letter congratulating the Marquis de Chastellux on his recent marriage
"Now you are well served for coming to fight in favour of the American Rebels, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, by catching that terrible Contagion — domestic felicity — which like the small pox or the plague, a man can have only once in his life: because it commonly lasts him (at least with us in America — I don't know how you manage these matters in France) for his whole life time."
Sources: “Presidential Anecdotes” by Paul F. Boller Jr., “White House Wit, Wisdom and Wisecracks: The Greatest Presidential Quotes,” by Phil Dampier and Ashley Walton, “The Wit & Wisdom of Ronald Reagan,” by James C. Humes, “The Ford Presidency: A History,” by Andrew Downer Crain, “American in Quotations,” by Bahman Dehgan, “Presidential Leadership in an Age of Change,” by Michael A. Genovese, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, “Rainbow’s End: The Crash of 1929,” by Maury Klein, the National Library for the Study of George Washington (at Mount Vernon), “The American Presidents from Polk to Hayes: What They Did, What They Said & What Was Said about Them,” by Robert A. Nowlan, “American Statesmen, Second Series, Volume III,” by Charles Sumner Olcott, “Crazy Sh*t Presidents Said,” by Robert Schnakenberg, Smithsonian.com, and the archives of the New York Times and The Washington Post.
Presidential portraits by Michael Hoeweler for The Washington Post