When Presidents Became the Punch Line for Comedy

Roundup: Talking About History

Ronald G. Shaffer, in the WSJ (Sept. 24, 2004):

Times have changed when it comes to the mocking of presidential candidates. During the 1960 election, Art Buchwald found himself on the same podium with then-Vice President Richard Nixon and proceeded to poke fun at the Republican presidential candidate. Later the humor columnist received an irate phone call from his father. "He couldn't believe that I would make fun of the vice president of the United States," Mr. Buchwald recalls with a chuckle.

By contrast, today many voters get much of their political news from the gusher of late night jokes ridiculing President Bush and John Kerry. The change can be traced to the night of June 17, 1972, when five men with links to President Nixon's re-election campaign against George McGovern were caught breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate office complex and bugging the phones. Watergate "was a turning point" for political humor, says Elaina Newport, co-founder of the Capitol Steps comedy troupe. "The gloves came off."

During the Watergate cover-up, comedians were the first to say out loud what many people were thinking: "Heard about the new Watergate watch? Both hands always point at Nixon."

But Watergate was still a touchy subject. In 1973, three New York City TV stations refused to run ads for a Watergate record album by master Nixon impersonator David Frye because the ads contained an offensive word -- "impeachment." On the album, Mr. Frye as Nixon declared: "There's a bright side to Watergate. My administration has taken crime out of the streets and put it in the White House where I can keep an eye on it."

As a sign of changing attitudes, Mr. Frye says today, "I got very little flak," except for the time "a woman came up to me in Bloomingdale's and started yelling at me."

Meanwhile at Washington's Shoreham Hotel crowds flocked to hear comedian Mark Russell joke about the Democratic office bugging: "George McGovern knew something suspicious was going on when he picked up a grapefruit and got a dial tone."

One night, Nixon aides Patrick Buchanan and John McLaughlin dropped by. Mr. Russell did an audience poll: How many believe that Nixon knew all about Watergate? (Huge applause) How many think he didn't know? (Sparse applause.) "How many of you," he asked the latter group, "believe in the Easter bunny?" When Mr. Buchanan asked if the first question always got such big applause, Mr. Russell replied: "No. Usually it's more." Mr. Buchanan declined to be interviewed, saying "There still are a lot of our folks who don't see the humor of all that back in the 1970s."...

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