Humor can be a powerful political weapon in skilled hands. President Donald Trump just showed that he needs to go back to basic training.
Trump rolled out his sense of humor Saturday night at the annual Gridiron dinner, where politicians have competed for more than a century for an unofficial Washington comedy crown. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were especially noteworthy for using Gridiron appearances to dazzle the city’s elite with their sharp and self-deprecating wit.
Trump opened with a few good cracks about his hostile relationship with the press. “I’m ruining your evening in person,” he said. And he didn’t exclude jokes at his own expense, or at least at the expense of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who just lost his top-secret security clearance. “We were late because Jared could not get through security,” Trump cracked.
The routine went downhill from there, tumbling across the line separating well-chosen gibes from crude insults. He called House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi “crazy.” He boasted that in a contest against former Vice President Joe Biden, he “would kick his ass.” He belittled his own vice president, Mike Pence, comparing him to the contestants on his former reality TV show and declaring, “I’m proud to call him the apprentice.”
Loyal Trump fans probably chuckled at their guy’s closing line mocking the many journalists in the room. He said the chance to address them gave him the most “fun I’ve had since watching your faces on election night.”
The Gridiron is a 133-year-old club of 65 prominent Washington journalists, and its annual dinner is attended by leaders in politics, business and the press. Trump is the 22nd president to speak in the forum, where the goal is to have fun at the expense of political rivals and oneself.
Most presidents see the event as an opportunity to score points.
“Humor can serve a lot of political goals,” said Jeff Nussbaum, a former White House speechwriter who often helps Democrats find their funny sides for these venues. “It can increase likability by showing self-awareness. It can be a tool to diminish ongoing controversies, or it can provide a memorable way to hammer home a serious point.”
Landon Parvin, an ex-White House speechwriter who works with Republicans, has noted the value of self-deprecation: “If you can make fun of yourself, it says I’m just like you.”
Before his 1960 presidential run, Kennedy was facing criticism that he was going to buy the nomination through his wealthy father, Joseph P. Kennedy. At the Gridiron dinner that year, he pulled out what he said was a telegram from his father and started to read: “Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide.”
More than two decades later, Reagan used his famous wit to defuse accusations that he kept too light a schedule. “They say hard work never killed anyone,” Reagan reminded the Washington movers and shakers. “But I figure, why take the chance?”
Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, wasn’t as amusing as Kennedy or Reagan, but his style was appreciated by audiences of elites.
In 2011, Obama spoke as his legislative agenda was stalled and opponents, led by Trump, were outrageously claiming that he couldn’t prove he was a native-born U.S. citizen, as the Constitution requires presidents to be. Obama started his Gridiron speech with a song, “Born in the USA.” Then he noted that he’d last addressed the dinner in 2006 and continued: “Back then I was a newcomer, who couldn’t get anything done in the Senate. Now I’m a president who can’t get anything done in the Senate.”
The two best humorist-politicians since Will Rogers in the 1920s were not presidents, but members of Congress: Representative Morris K. Udall of Arizona, a Democrat, and Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a Republican. They were far apart ideologically, but each appreciated the other’s mastery of humor.
Simpson was especially quick on his feet. When a constituent demanded to know his church preference, he shot back, “Red brick.”
And he knew how to make cutting fun of his own profession without insulting anybody. For example, he once noted that “about 15 percent” of most businessespeople, churchgoers and country club members “are screwballs, lightweights and boobs.” Then the scalpel came out: “You would not want those people underrepresented in Congress.”
Udall, who died in 1998, once said he wanted to be buried in Chicago so he could “remain active in politics.”
Maybe the best of hundreds of Udall stories was one about the New Hampshire politician who was visiting an Arizona Indian reservation right before re-election.
He promised the gathering that he’d get money for a new hospital on the reservation. “Goomwah, goomwah,” the tribe enthusiastically responded. Then he vowed to build a new school. Again came the shouts of, “Goomwah, goomwah.”
The self-satisfied politician didn’t ask what “goomwah” meant, but he soon learned. As he headed toward the corral to accept a gift of a pony, the chief cautioned, “Be careful not to step in the goomwah.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.