Monday, February 18, 2019

Working the Room Presidential humor from Lincoln to Kennedy to Reagan.

From Lapham's Quarterly:
By all outward appearances, Abraham Lincoln was one of our least electable presidents. Tall and thin, with a long torso and big ears, his arms flailed when he spoke, and his voice was “not melodious,” but instead “shrill and piercing.” One friend said that “he provoked as much laughter by the grotesque expression of his homely face as by the abstract fun of his stories.” In the way he spoke, his carriage, his uncontrollable expressions, and his “shrill” voice, Lincoln was, according to modern TV-ready requirements, decidedly unpresidential. But what he lacked in physical appeal—it was an eleven-year-old girl who first suggested he grow a beard—he put right with words. Abraham Lincoln was funny.

Laced with a Southern accent, Lincoln’s stories and jokes reflected his rural, homespun education. According to Judge David Davis, Lincoln’s humor was:
In many respects unique, if not remarkable. His countenance and all his features seemed to take part in the performance. As he neared the pith or point of the joke or story, every vestige of seriousness disappeared from his face. His little gray eyes sparkled; a smile seemed to gather up, curtainlike, the corners of his mouth; his frame quivered with suppressed excitement; and when the point—or “nub” of the story, as he called it—came, no one’s laugh was heartier than his.
In 1848, as a young representative from Illinois, Lincoln took the House floor in support of the Whig presidential candidate, Zachary Taylor. He mocked his Democratic opponents for not gathering behind a single candidate by telling a curious anecdote:
I have heard some things from New York, and if they are true, we might well say of your party there, as a drunken fellow once said when he heard the reading of an indictment for hog stealing. The clerk read on till he got to, and through the words, “did steal, take, and carry away, ten boars, ten sows, ten shoats, and ten pigs” at which he exclaimed, “Well, by golly, that is the most equally divided gang of hogs I ever did hear of.” If there is any gang of hogs more equally divided than the Democrats of New York are about this time, I have not heard of it.
When Lincoln finished with a remark, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “He looks up at you with a great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs.”

Lincoln had an ear for entertaining, collecting anecdotes like the drunken hog-stealing tale and keeping them at the ready to make a point. “I remember a good story when I hear it,” he said, “but I never invented anything original. I am only a retail dealer.” We should perhaps take the comment as something of a dissemblance. It is difficult to imagine who else could have originated this snide remark in a letter to Gen. George B. McClellan, his eventual opponent in the 1864 election, when the general failed to advance against the Confederacy with the speed Lincoln would have liked: “If you don’t want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while.”

Although many of the jokes attributed to Lincoln are of questionable authenticity—when accused of lying he reportedly said, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”—his public humor was well-recorded in his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas. Lincoln attacked Douglas’ position, which would have allowed each state to decide on the future of slavery, as an argument “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” Douglas later admitted that while he felt he was a match for Lincoln’s arguments, “there is one thing, however, of which I stand constantly in dread. When Lincoln begins to tell a story, I begin to get apprehensive. Every one of his stories seems like a whack upon my back—that is exactly the effect that the allegories and anecdotes, of which he is a master, have upon me.” Lincoln’s humor allowed him to connect with the audience in a way Douglas never could. Lincoln was a man of the people, and his humor reflected a shared experience. Douglas had reason to be wary—he had lost to Lincoln sixteen years earlier when they both courted Mary Todd—but Lincoln’s performance at the debates was not sufficient to stop Douglas’ reelection to the Senate. The national exposure, however, helped him win the White House two years later.

During his presidency, Lincoln suffered from depression, deepened by the deaths of his mother and older sister and by the Civil War. He tried to keep his darker moods out of public view, leading even his most dedicated supporters such as Richard Henry Dana to wonder, “Can this man Lincoln ever be serious?” When asked how he liked being president, Lincoln replied jokingly, and honestly, “You have heard the story, haven’t you, about the man who was tarred and feathered and carried out of town on a rail? A man in the crowd asked him how he liked it. His reply was that if it was not for the honor of the thing, he would much rather walk.”...