I don’t think I’ll ever stop marvelling at the stuff the internet throws up. Oh dear, that could have been better phrased! Every now and then I receive emails full of nuggets aficionados have dug up and salt them away for an occasion like this. Today, I’m going to share with you a small part of my collection and, yes, I’ve phrased myself advisedly because I do consider them gems.
Unlike our politicians, American presidents have a tradition of self-deprecatory humour. The annual speech to the Washington Press Club is usually the occasion. But the idea of laughing at oneself in public goes a long way back.
This is what Abraham Lincoln said of himself in the 1860s: “If I were two-faced would I be wearing this one?” A 100 years later, this is how Kennedy defended himself against the accusation he was using his father’s money to buy the primary: “I just received the following wire from my Daddy: 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.”
Not surprisingly, Ronald Reagan was full of wise cracks. The wittiest was: “I’m not worried about the deficit, it’s big enough to take care of itself.” The cruellest was about the man he beat in 1980: “Recession is when your neighbour loses his job, depression is when you lose yours and recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
However, perhaps the most truthful was this: “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of a national emergency — even if I’m in a cabinet meeting.” But no one slept on the job better than Mr Reagan and the American economy loved it.
Lyndon Johnson’s humour, like the man himself, was a touch rude but it made his point pretty effectively as this example proves: “Did you ever think that making a speech on economics is a lot like pissing down your leg? It seems hot to you but it never does to anyone else.” By 1968 the country was so pissed off with him he decided to retire rather than stand again.
In these days of political correctness, presidential humour can’t afford the sort of swipes Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were famous for. Now the butt of the joke is the president himself or the presidency. Hence, Bill Clinton said: “Being President is like running a cemetery: you’ve got a lot of people under you and nobody’s listening.” Or Barack Obama: “If I had to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility. And my greatest weakness? It’s possible that I’m a little too awesome.”
I suspect Jimmy Carter was being more truthful than witty when he said, a few years after he lost his re-election, to the same journalists who destroyed his presidency: “My esteem in this country has gone up substantially. It’s very nice now when people wave at me. I notice they use all their fingers.”
Unfortunately, our politicians don’t make jokes about themselves. Perhaps they fear we’ll take them seriously and believe it’s the truth? But the day Mr Modi or Mrs Gandhi laugh at themselves even their critics could develop some affection for them. The point to remember is when a person pokes fun at himself he’s rising above his critics and his problems without seeming defensive or smug. But unlike the rope trick, this is one we still have to learn.
The views expressed are personal.