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American presidency & the funny bone
Adlai Stevenson, a White House aspirant who was described as the best President the United States never had, famously remarked one time that "In America, anybody can be President. That's one of the risks you take. " This is not entirely true. Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution says that no person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption the Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President. Neither, it goes on to say, shall any person be eligible to that office who has not attained the age of 35 years, and been a US resident for 14 years. The Constitution was amended in 1951 to place a two term limit on the Presidency.
More recently, it appears another qualification is required to make it to the White House: A sense of humour. Gone are the days when Presidents could get by with a wink, a nod, some gladhandling and an occasional oneliner. These days, they need to employ an army of writers, especially some with a comic touch, to crank out clever bon-mots and epigrams, unless they wish to toil through the night to come up with verbal sparklers that seem to constitute the life blood of public discourse.
The showcase events for the burnished quips are marquee Washington DC bashes that feature journalists hosting the President and other eminence grises of the establishment - the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club and the White House Correspondents' (WHC) dinner among them. Successive Presidents have sallied forth to these events for verbal thrust and parry in what has become a sparkling Washington exercise in raillery and roistering, an evening when all bets, and protective shields, are off.
US Presidents have wisecracked their way across 200-plus years, but it was Ronald Reagan who set the bar really high for chief executive humour (not that it stopped hacks from drinking themselves silly). By the time he came for his final WHC Dinner, Reagan was already famous for essaying brilliant one-liners, the famous one being his remark to doctors when taken in for surgery after he was shot early in his first term (" I hope you are all Republicans" ). Another time, he joked about his age, saying 75 was really 24 when measured in Celsius. The best one was of course his brilliant putdown of a youthful Walter Mondale who twitted Reagan about his age. "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my op ponent's youth and inexperience, " said Reagan, bringing the roof down on the debate - and ending Mondale's White House hopes.
The great thing about the media events is that the press gets to roast the President too, with far more liberty than they would at press conferences, which is serious business. As a farewell present at Gridiron, a chorus of Washington hacks mocked Reagan "for the memories" singing "of Stockman and Jim Watt, the Iran-Contra plot, of Ollie and Bill Casey, the diversions you forgot" - all stories that involved the Reagan White House's capers. Presidents too get to needle the press. Barack Obama, at his recent Gridiron gig, took a poke at Huffington Post and its journalistic model, saying, "There's no one else out there linking to the kinds of hard-hitting journalism that HuffPo is linking to every single day. Give them a round of applause. And you don't pay them - it's a great business model. "
Bush Sr barely got by with the funnies, but Bill Clinton was a natural, with an exquisite comic touch, to provide what one journo said is the "closest thing we've had to Mark Twain, or a Twain character, in the White House in our life. " In his final appearance at the WHC dinner in 2000, Clinton insisted that the clock is running down on the Republicans in Congress, too. "I feel for them. I really do. They've only got seven more months to investigate me . . . that's a lot of pressure. So little time, so many unanswered questions . . . For example, over the last few months I've lost 10 pounds. Where did they go? (Laughter. ) Why haven't I produced them before the Independent Counsel?"
Last year, well into retirement, Clinton showed he had not lost his deft touch when he substituted for Obama at Gridiron, telling journos that his new favourite cocktail (after heart surgery) is "Lipitor on the rocks. " And on his economic record: "My only regret in creating 23 million new jobs is that 2 million of those jobs were for right-wing pundits. "
Bush Jr turned out to be a surprisingly good comic, and a master of self-deprecation. Derided for his lack of experience, depth, poor language skills etc, he mocked himself without inhibition. Once, explaining his infamous remark "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" Bush said, "If they would read it closely they would see I'm using the transitive plural tense, so the word 'is' are correct. " Another Bush classic: "Those stories about my intellectual capacity do get under my skin. You know for a while I even thought my staff believed it. There on my schedule first thing every morning it said, 'Intelligence briefing'. "
Barack Obama though is in a class of his own. Or maybe he just employs better gagwriters. But time and again, he has disarmed hardened hacks with brilliant wisecracks, to the extent that commentators who had despaired that he would be bad news for comedians (because he is Black and it wouldn't be politically correct to make fun of him) found that he is REALLY bad news, because he is such a good comic.
Obama finally made an appearance last month at the Gridiron after missing it for two years and immediately stole the show - and hearts - even though he went to toe-to-toe against comedian Jimmy Kimmel. "As we gather here tonight, all across the world a powerful spirit of change is tearing down old regimes, decaying institutions, remnants of the past. So, look out, Gridiron Club!" he began, referring to the exclusive group of superannuated scribes who hold the club of 1885 vintage together.
Such humour is an American trademark, a refreshing change from Indian ministers and bureaucrats (and journalists) who are so full of themselves that you worry they will explode with self-importance. While many Indian "VIPs" tend to cover their inadequacy and neurosis with snarky comebacks and pointless pointscoring, American leaders have no problem making fun of their shortcomings.
Nor are they afraid to take a friendly poke at rivals and colleagues. Hillary Clinton, for instance, has been a butt of Obama jokes. "I've dispatched Hillary to the Middle East to talk about how these countries can transition to new leaders - though, I've got to be honest, she's gotten a little passionate about the subject, " Obama joked at one event. "These past few weeks it's been tough falling asleep with Hillary out there on Pennsylvania Avenue shouting, throwing rocks at the (White House) window. " More recently, he joked about how she wouldn't stop drunk-texting him from Cartagena.
Even some holy cows are not spared. Last week, in what could be his final WHC dinner if he is not re-elected, Obama even fried the Secret Service that was protecting him, following their capers with hookers in Cartagena. "I really do enjoy attending these dinners. In fact, I had a lot more material prepared, but I have to get the Secret Service home in time for their new curfew, " he finished, cracking a smile from even the unsmiling agents.
So it's safe to predict that whatever else happens to America, it will never have a humourless drudge as President. As for India, we will have plenty of cartoons or caricatures, and some occasional sher-shairi not understood by 90 per cent of the population, but elegant and classy comebacks and comic relief may not be in our fate.
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