When you think of presidential impersonators, you think funny, ha-ha, frivolous. But the little-known history of presidential impersonation in America is surprisingly dark and twisted.
It’s filled with fascinating instances in which the zany world of comedy collides in unpredictable ways with the dead-serious power corridors of Washington.
And if you peer close enough into that past, you can see the history of us as a country, and our complicated, often fraught relationship with the person we choose every four years to rule over us as our leader.
For starters, presidential impersonation — as entertainment, public performance — didn’t even exist for most of our country’s history.
It isn’t until the Coolidge administration that we get one of our first public tastes at an impression. And it went terribly awry.
That first brave attempt was made on the radio by Will Rogers, the most dominant comedian of his time (think Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman all rolled into one).
In a 1928 broadcast, after a somewhat predictable monologue, Rogers included a few lines where he emulated Coolidge’s tight, wiry voice, riffing on the topic of American prosperity. But the idea was so novel and shocking that not everyone realized it was fake. Within days, Rogers was forced to explain and apologize.
“My Dear Mr. and Mrs. President, I find that due to my lack of good taste, or utter stupidity, that I have wounded the feelings of two people who I most admire,” he writes to Coolidge. “If you can see it in your heart, you and that dear wife of yours to forgive me, I will certainly see that it, or nothing approaching it, will ever happen again.”
Despite that promise, he made another run at it six years later, parodying Franklin D. Roosevelt on a radio program having an absurd conversation with a Soviet diplomat.
Again, almost immediately after, he wired an apologetic message to the White House.
“Ask the boss to excuse me, won’t you?” he told Roosevelt’s press secretary. “When you are wrong you are just all wrong.”
Roosevelt replied graciously in a cable: “I must have guessed wrong too, because I liked it a lot.”
What you see in those early, fumbling impersonations by Rogers, says historian Peter Robinson, is our unease as a country with the basic idea of mocking the presidency in this way. It seems quaint, almost sweet, now to consider the reverence with which we used to treat the office.
But the biggest deterrent to presidential impersonation for more than a century, Robinson said, was this worry over propriety: “Is this okay? Will the president take offense? Will the public take offense?”
JFK and the golden age
When you’re writing about real U.S. presidents, there are scores of presidential historians to call. When you’re writing about presidential impersonators, however, there’s Robinson — the leading (and perhaps only) expert in this obscure field.
For 2½ years — between teaching classes and grading papers at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati — Robinson flew across the country, digging into scattered libraries and TV archives to trace the roots of presidential-based humor for his book “The Dance of the Comedians.”
What Robinson found is that after Rogers’s early failed attempts, the idea of presidential impersonation lay effectively dormant for two decades. There was even an unofficial clampdown during World War II, because of fears that a faked message from the president could stoke fears or sow confusion at a time when the propaganda was seen as a key wartime resource.
It wasn’t until John F. Kennedy ushered in the age of Camelot that the idea suddenly returned, largely because of a young, then-unknown stand-up comic.
In 1962, that comedian, Vaughn Meader — desperate to find his big break — worked a bit into his act where he pretended to be Kennedy holding a press conference. It netted huge laughs.
So when Meader got booked on a CBS show called “Talent Scouts” (think 1960s “America’s Got Talent” minus Howard Stern), Meader pulled out his Kennedy impression.
Robinson, who found rare footage of that appearance, describes the audience’s reaction this way: “Gasps of amazement at Meader’s precision — and perhaps his audacity — are immediately followed by a swelling wave of laughter and applause.”
Producers quickly got Meader to put together an entire album called “The First Family” that gently poked fun at the Kennedys, and it took the country by storm. Within two weeks, it sold more than a million copies, beating folk band Peter, Paul and Mary. It went on to become the fastest-selling pre-Beatles album in history. It won Album of the Year at the Grammys, sold 7.5 million copies, and was heard by everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Kennedy himself.
When asked about it, President Kennedy seemed good-natured about it all, but in private, he expressed annoyance, even alarm. According to Robinson and other historians, records show that after Kennedy’s aides met with the president, they concluded that although “nothing could be done about this particular record … it might be useful to get some trade magazine to blast this sort of thing.”
Kennedy’s press secretary even contacted the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission at one point, asking him to look into it.
But it was at that moment, when presidential impersonation seemed poised to hit its peak, that the whole idea came crashing down. On Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated.
Suddenly no one was in the mood to see someone imitating, much less making fun of, the president. Meader, whose career never recovered, went from the country’s hottest star to total pariah.
Meader — who died in 2004 — later said that Nov. 22, 1963, was the day he died as well. Agents almost immediately canceled his acts. Stores pulled a follow-up album off shelves. In interviews decades later, Meader recalled how famous stars he once considered friends stopped talking to him. And how, in desperation, he turned to alcohol, then cocaine and heroin.
The savage return
With Kennedy’s death, the concept of impersonating presidents seemed doomed, as well.
But all it took was one Richard Milhous Nixon and a little hotel burglary to remind us of the irrepressible need to denigrate our leaders.
With Watergate, presidential impersonation roared back with a vengeance. The most savage of its new practitioners was a comic named David Frye. To listen nowadays to Frye’s album “Richard Nixon: A Fantasy” — released a year before Nixon’s resignation — is to witness in real time a brutal and total evisceration of the Oval Office in the court of public opinion.
By Frye’s era, any qualms over presidential propriety were long gone. No one was worried about what Nixon or the public would think.
“The only way I’m going to leave the White House is to be dragged screaming and kicking,” says Frye’s paranoid and insecurity-laced take on Nixon on the album, “because my fellow Americans, I love America, and you always hurt the one you really love.”
From there, the floodgates opened wide.
You got Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford — an impression that almost entirely consisted of him stumbling into objects. In following decades, Saturday Night Live turned presidential impersonation into a high comedic art form.
And an entire cottage industry sprang up.
You started seeing George Dubyas at car dealerships. Bill Clintons flirting with bachelorette partygoers in Las Vegas. Faux-bamas giving speeches at corporate retreats.
So where does this deep craving for presidential mockery come from?
After years of research, Robinson, the historian, believes it has always been present — tucked deep in the American psyche and stemming from our unique roots as a democracy.
“We choose our presidents from among us. They are citizens just like us whom we elevate to have power over us,” he said. And because our leader comes from our midst, there is a constant desire, Robinson said, “to bring that person down to size, back to our level, if only for the duration of a punchline.”