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Well-Liked Leaders Know The Secret: Make Us Laugh


Last week, after Donald Trump asked President Obama to produce more records to prove his citizenship, the president used an appearance on "The Tonight Show" to dismiss the issue with a one-liner. Host Jay Leno asked, what's this thing between you and Trump?


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This all dates back to when we were growing up together in Kenya.

CONAN: In a piece for Lapham's Quarterly, Michael Phillips-Anderson writes that however spontaneous lines like that might sound, they're often carefully prepared. He looks at politicians from Lincoln to Kennedy to Reagan who deployed their wit to good effect. What intentionally funny line from a politician do you remember and what was its purpose? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Michael Phillips-Anderson is an assistant professor of communication at Monmouth University in New Jersey. He joins us here in Studio 3A as he's a storm refugee as I understand it.

MICHAEL PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: That's right. Our campus is just about a mile from the shore, and power is out just everywhere. It's the - the devastation is pretty severe. So we're closed through at least the end of the week.

CONAN: Well, so you're down visiting relatives?

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Yes. I'm from the D.C. area.

CONAN: OK, well, all right. Well...

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: It's great to be here.

CONAN: And it's nice to have you here in the studio as a result. That cut we played in the intro from President Obama, deconstruct that a little bit for us. What's going on there?

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Well, I certainly think that it was a planned response that for an event - an occasion such as that, the president doesn't come on and do everything off the cuff that - it was Richard Nixon who said that no speech requires more careful planning than an off-the-cuff remark. So he knew that this offer had come out, this, well, supposed offer from Donald Trump to produce these documents and he would give this money to charity. And to meet such an offer with seriousness would give credence to Trump's offer. So by meeting it with humor, it makes Trump look ridiculous, and particularly invoking a subject such as, you know, being born in Kenya and Trump and others championing of the birther idea. It engages that idea head-on and says, I can take the joke, I can dismiss it. This is all ridiculous.

CONAN: And we're all grownups here, not those other...


CONAN: Yeah. So that is a - one of the classic purposes of presidential humor, to rise above the controversy.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Certainly, and it's an idea that goes back in - and not only in presidential humor but in political humor generally, even Cicero writes of it in - as one of the main functions of rhetorical humor, is to dismiss criticisms while maintaining your likability and credibility.

CONAN: We don't have any tape of Cicero.


CONAN: Not so much. Interestingly, we are going to get tape, just in a few days, of Abraham Lincoln.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Well, yes. And it's - one of the things I'm interested to see the film is if they're going to portray Lincoln as funny, that it was such a central part...

CONAN: He was hilarious in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Yes. Well, actually in that book, which is very entertaining, in that, he's not even portrayed as using humor as much as he did, that it was a central part, I think, really of both Lincoln's being and his ability to persuade was his use of humor. And we just don't portray him that way historically.

CONAN: And his use of humor in a very special way, of course, he came from very home-spun circumstances. He was, people say, the first president to build the log cabin in which he was born.


CONAN: But that was no joke where he grew up. And a country lawyer, a pretty sophisticated country lawyer if you actually read his biography, but a country lawyer nonetheless.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: And one who - he obviously read voraciously, not having formal schooling. And one of his favorite areas to read in was humor. And he was often criticized, particularly during the Civil War, that even people who were his friends and supporters would say, you know, why are you making jokes? Why do you read - for instance by Artemus Ward, who was a notable humorist at the time. And he said, if I didn't laugh, I should cry - that it's what kept him going.

CONAN: And he responded to almost every circumstance by saying, that reminds me of a story.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Correct. There are even political cartoons at the time criticizing him for that. A statue of Columbia saying, you know, why have a 100,000 of my sons died for this? And Lincoln saying, oh, that reminds of a funny store. His opponents used it frequently as an attack on him. Can this man, Lincoln, ever be serious? That his very candidacy is a joke.

CONAN: But in a sense, the stories that he told acknowledged his background and indicated that he was trying to be authentic. This is who I am.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Oh, absolutely. That he would use them in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which is, you know, one of the largest collections of Lincoln's speeches that we have. There are more than 50 instances of laughter from the audience. And while laughter doesn't necessarily guarantee that there was a moment of intentional humor, it likely points to one, and so he frequently used it. That in one exchange where Douglas presented his argument that each state should decide the slavery question for himself, Lincoln said that his argument was as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.


PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: It's a bit long of a quip for today's media, but the audience there certainly seemed to enjoy it.

CONAN: And similarly, you cite John Fitzgerald Kennedy, of course, the son of enormous wealth, who had, you know, his father was extremely wealthy, and used an appearance at the Gridiron Dinner to undercut that impression. Well, not undercut, but to acknowledge it.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Exactly. It's - he's not going to be able to dismiss the idea. He can't say, oh, my father isn't wealthy and powerful. That would be - that would in itself be ridiculous. Instead, he used intentional rhetorical humor to say, I acknowledge the criticism.

And the moment came in 1958 when he was running for re-election to the Senate. He was certainly thinking two years ahead to running to the presidency. After hearing jokes all night about his father's influence, he pulled the piece of paper from his pocket, pretending - he said I've just a received a telegram from my generous daddy. And he said that the telegram read: Dear Jack, Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide...


PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: And the audience just loved it.

CONAN: He was also noted - this is President Kennedy after he got elected - also noted for the wit that he would employ at press conferences. Here's an example.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution saying you were pretty much of a failure. (Laughter)

PRESIDENT JOHN KENNEDY: I hear it was passed unanimously. (Laughter)

CONAN: And you said, in looking back at some of those tapes, you could practically see the twinkle in his eye as he thought of the line, which was, of course, given the fact that it's a news conference, well, that was spontaneous.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Well, some of them are and some aren't. And this is one of the things I'm working on in my research, that I've been traveling to the presidential libraries to collect documents about the speechwriting and message development process. And we know that before this - the press conferences, Kennedy and his team would sit down. They would think about what questions might come and think about possible responses, including which ones they could deal with by employing humor. So he also had a quick, natural wit and was able to deploy it. And what's important is we don't know if they were spontaneous or not, and that's a credit to his delivery.

CONAN: We're talking with - where is your name again? Michael Phillips-Anderson, assistant professor of communications at Monmouth University in New Jersey, with us here in Studio 3A. We'd like to hear your suggestions as to the intentionally funny lines you've heard from politicians and their purpose. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Jerry is on the line with us from O'Fallon in Missouri.

JERRY: Yes. Good afternoon. This is dating me, but I remember when the brief appearance by then-candidate Richard Nixon in 1968 on the "Laugh-In" program. And for those who are too young to remember, it was a series of what, I guess, you'd called blackouts in the vaudeville days, but very short clips. And, of course, one of their stock phrases was: Sock it to me. And, you know, his face popped-up and said: Sock it to me? And I thought it went a long way towards countering - that he kind of had a, you know, such a serious air about him that he almost progressed into, you know, pompousness. So I kind of thought that helped humanize Richard Nixon as a candidate.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: There was actually an excellent NPR story where they talked to the producer of that incident. And they had to take - it was many, many takes to even get Nixon to see him that good. And that's one that's often cited as being this moment where pop culture and politics really intersect, although it does go back quite a ways. Both Nixon and John F. Kennedy appeared on Jack Paar's "Tonight Show" during the 1960 campaign, although they didn't make too many jokes. They made a few.

CONAN: Not too many chemo and matzo jokes available at that time.


CONAN: So anyway, Jerry, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

JERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Jennifer, and Jennifer with us from Indianapolis.

JENNIFER: Hi. I remember soon after Bill Clinton's presidency, he was a guest at a Christian convention somewhere down in the South. And then someone asked him if it was hypocritical that during his presidency - he had always been shown going to church every Sunday carrying his bible - but that despite going to church every Sunday, he had gotten involved in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and he very wryly said: Well, I think I've demonstrated that I need to be in church.


CONAN: Which - he got people on his side. Humor is one of the fundamental ways to get people on your side.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Right. I think it cuts through so-called reasonable arguments. We don't have - we have so many defenses built-up against the - just normal defense. So he could have just said, well, I've done bad things, and we know that, and I hope you'll forgive me for it. Humor cuts right past that. It gives us, really, a more authentic reaction, that we can't often hold back our laughter to really humorous line and let us connect with these politicians in a way that other arguments simply can't.

CONAN: You wrote if politicians can make us laugh, we can spin a fantasy that they will also govern in a way that we will like.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Right. It's a shortcut. Oh, I'm sorry. It's a shortcut to identification. That it lets us think that we really know who they are because if you and I laughed at the same joke, we must share some both common knowledge and common dispositions. And that - I think that that's often what we're looking for in candidates.

CONAN: Did it make you like Bill Clinton better, Jennifer?

JENNIFER: Oh, I thought it was a great comeback. Yeah, it showed a little bit humility on his part, which certainly was called for in those circumstances. I have a George W. Bush one too. Can I share it as well?

CONAN: Go ahead.

JENNIFER: OK. Soon after the Iraqi war - the war started in Iraq, there was a group of Americans of Iraqi descent who met with George W. at the White House and expressed concern that they wouldn't - that because they didn't have a good command of English, would they still be able to be involved in the reconstruction process after the war. And George W. said, oh, don't worry about that. They say I'm not very good at English either.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: That's great. And that's actually an example that I didn't know. His father also made the joke that - saying that he was one the one for whom English was his second language...


PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: ...that the two of them together often got themselves in trouble with misstatements, which I wouldn't consider to be certainly rhetorical, intentional humor. But if they're able to take those mistakes that they have and play them in a way to their advantage, to acknowledge them as this shortcoming, it helps to overcome it and dismiss it in a way that other persuasive arguments just might not.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Phillips-Anderson of the Monmouth College in New Jersey about a piece he wrote on presidential humor called "Working The Room" for Lapham's Quarterly. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we were talking a minute ago about President Clinton. There are these opportunities before, news conferences. We mentioned these appearances on late night television shows going back to Jack Paar in the 1950s. There are now structured opportunities for presidents to present their humorous side, the White House Correspondents' Dinner. This is an event from Bill Clinton in 2000, where he humorously addressed investigations surrounding, well, among other things, Monica Lewinsky.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: You know, the clock is running down on the Republicans and Congress, too. I feel for them, I do. They've only got seven more months to investigate me. That's a lot of pressure. So little time, so many unanswered questions. (Laughter)

CONAN: Well, that after he had pretty well ridden out the storm. But nevertheless, those are opportunities. Again, presidents don't go in and write those things themselves. They have a staff. They will bring in joke writers to help them with stuff like that.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Certainly. That - I mean, we all know that presidents have speech writing staffs and have had substantial ones at least since FDR. But for the - it's interesting that, as talented as these people are, they know if it's an occasion in which they need to use humor, especially if it's something like the Correspondents' Dinner in which humor is the primary means of communication, they need outside help. They need help from experts. Writing humor is considerably more difficult. And so we certainly had help on that speech and others for the Correspondents' Dinner.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we'd go next to Susie, and Susie's with us from McArthur in Ohio, excuse me.

SUSIE: Hello. I was thinking of the most current election that's coming up, where - and I don't know the name of it but - where both Romney and Obama were in New York at a fundraiser for some kind of Catholic group. And, you know...

CONAN: The Al Smith Dinner, yes.

SUSIE: Yes, so. You know, Romney said: I can hear the headline - or I can see the headlines now. He says, you know: Obama wins the hearts of the Catholic while Romney dines with the rich. And so he was, you know, essentially talking about them both being at the same place. But, you know, I just thought that was pretty interesting since there is, you know, this idea of kind of a liberal bias in the media and him kind of picking up on that line. And I will say that I am an Obama supporter, but I definitely give him credit for that.

CONAN: A nice turn of phrase.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: It is good. And I think it engages the issue in a way that by just saying, oh, the mainstream media is against me and the liberal bias, that may work with his base. But - so for instance, I mean, you said that you were an Obama supporter, that's - you're probably going to dismiss that idea. But by engaging it with a joke, it catches us off-guard and connects with us in a way that's just a regular argument wouldn't have.

CONAN: Susie, thanks very much.

SUSIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Mark, and Mark on the line with us from Syracuse.

MARK: Oh, afternoon, guys. I seem to remember President Carter, at one point during a press conference, commenting about CIA agents in the Middle East and how much they were paying for ladies of the evening for their services and his comment was - it was - the dollar amount was highly inflationary at the time...


MARK: ...trying to make a joke of the troubles that Carter was having at that incident.

CONAN: Well, there's Jimmy Carter, a funny man when chooses to be but often in serious situations.

MARK: Yes.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Right. I think...

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: Oh, thanks very much.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: And I think it's a really interesting example, too, of what are the limits of rhetorical humor? Whether it's that - we know it's going to be persuasive in all situations. And so if the subject is too serious, it isn't one that you can really engage with humor, and perhaps after a lot of time has passed but certainly not for a president or a politician in the moment.

CONAN: Yeah.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: And so that's - we often see humor employed as a means of defending their own foibles. But when it comes to a real apology, for example, of when they really have to own up for something, we rarely see humor employed as a rhetorical strategy.

CONAN: It's tragedy plus time equals humor.


CONAN: Michael Phillips-Anderson, thank you very much for your time today.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And we're sorry about the circumstances, but glad you washed up in our studio.

PHILLIPS-ANDERSON: Great to be here.

CONAN: Michael Phillips-Anderson, assistant professor of communication at Monmouth University in New Jersey, with us here in Studio 3A. You can find a link to his piece, "Working the Room," at our website. Go to npr.org. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, and Ira Flatow will be here with a conversation about how secure our voting machines are. We'll talk to you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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