By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
When I was writing speeches for President Bush #41, we'd start working every Spring on the annual "joke" dinners—the Gridiron Club, the Alfalfa Club, and the White House Correspondents Dinner. Those black- or even white-tie dinners were a Washington ritual, "off the record" despite often being hosted by members of the press, and they required a comedy monologue delivered by the President. But every year, President Bush would let us know that he really didn't want to go. "The American people don't want a stand-up comedian for a president," I remember him saying to me. But he'd go anyway, his world-famous polite side taking over, so as not to snub the hosts.
Yesterday, the same day as President Obama's remarks expressing outrage at the AIG bonuses, the word was that he would not be attending one of this year's "joke" dinners: the most exclusive one of all, the Gridiron Dinner. The women wear ball gowns, the men white tie and tails (ribbons and medals encouraged), and the Marine Corps band accompanies household-name journalists who sing doctored-up versions of show tunes skewering the Washington establishment and the diplomatic corps.
Back in the day, I got to tag along and stand in the back, wearing a ball gown but trying to blend with the waiters. It's a very entertaining evening. I remember wishing the rest of America could see Helen and Andrea and Dan belting out funny songs as if they were on the Carol Burnett Show. (But that would never happen, since the whole thing was behind closed doors, no cameras, no note-taking allowed.) By the time the President got up to speak, there was already so much wine and laughter, he was a guaranteed hit. And despite all his complaining, President Bush would always say afterward that he guessed it wasn't so bad after all.
So when President Obama said he was skipping it—the first president to do so since at least World War II—I immediately thought of President Bush's words about not being a stand-up comic, and understood his reluctance. It's tough to tell jokes in any setting, and in front of such a tough bunch of reporters makes it even tougher. Plus this event smacks of elitism: white tie and champagne, limousines stretched around the block outside. Given all the populist outrage directed not only at AIG, but at Bernie Madoff, members of the business press, CEOs, the top one percent of earners, members of Congress, and bankers—and much of that outrage stirred up by the White House, I might add—it would be a difficult time for the president to stand up in tails and tell jokes. So, yeah, no Gridiron.
But then President Obama agreed to appear on Jay Leno's new comedy show this Thursday. Doing the Jay Leno Show is doing the Gridiron, times ten. Much higher stakes: millions watching on live television coast-to-coast, with replays available on YouTube forever. No wine and silly warm-up acts to loosen up the crowd. Just walk in cold and be funny without a script. So until now, the White House has just said no to the late night shows.
In fact, no sitting president has ever appeared on any comedy show. Richard Nixon did "Sock It To Me" on Laugh-In as a candidate for president—despite the objections of his staff, according to Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan—and Bill Clinton did the Arsenio Hall Show, but also as a candidate. President Bush #41 went on Saturday Night Live with Dana Carvey, but only after he left office. There's a reason presidents don't do comedy on television, especially in tough times.
The president sets the tone of the conversation in America. As much as President Obama would like to be a man of the people, a "regular guy," he's not anymore. His job description encompasses being Commander-in-Chief, leader of the Executive Branch of government, and Head of State. He's "The Leader of the Free World." Doing Jay Leno lessens the stature of the office, and diminishes the man. On Leno, he becomes just one more talk show guest, a celebrity on the circuit promoting his latest movie or book. It's a decision that speaks volumes about Obama's approach to the office. For that matter, so does his signing of op-eds about specific legislation in newspapers; his picking fights with radio talk show hosts; and his casual dress code in the Oval Office. There's still a coat-and-tie rule at the Supreme Court and on the floor of the House and Senate, out of respect for those offices. There should be at the White House, too.
David Broder, one of the deans of the White House press corps, declared over the weekend that it is "not too soon to say that the Obama honeymoon is over"—that the benefit of the doubt extended to new presidents out of respect for the office has worn out. Clearly this decision to go on Leno's show was a calculated judgment, part of the White House's strategy to set the tone during the president's first 100 days. I can't help but think that with this TV appearance, President Obama is hastening the end of the honeymoon himself.
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