Washington — Ronald Reagan long ago learned the value of a good laugh, especially when he could turn the joke on himself. This week that tool has helped him and the nation through a crisis.
Tension in Washington was as thick as the clouds that poured rain all day March 30, while most of the city sat close to televisions and radios waiting for word on the President's condition. Then came the news: The President was doing well. He was even telling jokes.
Sighs of relief cut through the gloom: A man who could greet the doctors with "Please tell me you're Republicans" shortly after taking a bullet in the chest must be in good shape.
His always excellent timing had been perfect, allaying the fears of those around him and, no doubt, boosting his own spirits as well. To Mrs. Reagan, who was with him just before he underwent surgery, he quipped, "Honey, I forgot to duck."
Once out of surgery, he was dashing off more one-liners. In a note passed after his operation, he paraphrased a statement by Winston Churchill that "there is no more exhilarating feeling than being shot without result." Later the President is reportedly said, "I always heals fast." When a nurse replied, "Keep up the good work," Reagan countered, "You mean this may happen several more times?"
Reagan's sense of humor has pulled him out of many a tight spot in the past, often totally disarming his critics and causing many to like him in spite of themselves. A doggedly Democratic Washington prepared itself to look distastefully on the new Republican chief of state, who was seen as a right-wing extremist. But he has won over much of the city, including some folks who don't care for his politics. And he has done it in large part by humor.
Last week at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, packed with leading journalists and officialdom, the President confessed that there have been communications problems in his administration. "Sometimes," he said, "our right hand doesn't know what our far-right hand is doing."
"You can't help but like the guy," advice columnist Ann Landers, a guest at the dinner, told the Washington Post. "He really knows how to laugh at himself."
Reagan has had plenty of practice. Some of his most successful jokes smoothed his way as governor of California. As his first term began, the newly elected Governor Reagan had decided not to give his predecessor, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., an extra minute in office, for fear that Mr. Brown would make more court appointments. So Reagan was sworn in at midnight.
Quipped the new governor to US Sen. George Murphy (R) of California, also a former actor: "Well, George, here we are on the Late Show again."
Later he fought hard against state withholding taxes, declaring, "My feet are set in concrete on this issue." By 1971, California had a cash-flow problem, and Reagan changed his mind -- a circumstance that in politics often opens the door to ridicule. But Reagan turned the tables with a jest, telling reporters, "The sound you hear is concrete breaking up around my feet."
"What do you do with a guy who says things like that?" says a reporter who covered Governor Reagan in California. (One thing the press corps did was present the governor with a pair of his old shoes set in concrete.)
Critics often see the Reagan humor as born of his showbiz background and credit him only with reading his lines well. They maintain that without the scriptwriters not much would be left. In the crisis this week there was no script, however. Reagan's keen sense of humor has proved a strength in the face of personal danger.