NO one knew better than John F. Kennedy that negative public perceptions can be changed with wit. In Kennedy's Senate campaign late in the '50s the extensive use of Kennedy money was an issue, and his speech at the Washington Gridiron spring dinner followed a song containing the line, ''For the bill belongs to Daddy,'' which led him to pull from his pocket a supposed telegram from Joseph P. Kennedy: ''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.''
At another Gridiron evening Kennedy dealt with the religious issue by quipping that as president, ''I do hope that Methodist Bishop Bromley Oxnam will be my personal envoy to the Vatican.''
It's difficult to take Kennedy's joshing observations out of the context of their day and expect to convey fully how funny they were. But as a traveling newsman at the time I found them being repeated in political circles from coast to coast. I would hear again and again that here was a presidential prospect who didn't take himself too seriously -- someone who could deflect his political liabilities with humor. With sharp wit Kennedy had given his hopes of becoming a presidential nominee a decided boost.
That was years ago. And now, through a video Hillary Clinton prepared and left behind when she embarked for Asia, she effectively used the annual Gridiron get-together of journalists, publishers, and political bigwigs to rehabilitate her public image.
Mrs. Clinton had, according to polls, become less than an asset to the president. Therefore, since the November election, she has drawn back from public view. Those who talked to her privately said that she had become more than a little frustrated by the traditional first lady role that was being thrust upon her.
Mrs. Clinton's Gridiron spoof of the movie ''Forrest Gump'' really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. But it is enough to say that she poked fun at herself that evening in ways that left no doubt that she possesses a great sense of humor. More than anything else she was thus able to rebut the criticism that she takes herself too seriously. It was much more than a performance. It was an event. People all over Washington were hearing about it and chuckling about it. Soon the story will be passed along all around the country.
The video first shows Mrs. Clinton waiting at a bus stop in front of the White House with a box of chocolates on her lap. ''Hi, my name's Hillary -- Hillary Gump,'' she says in an exaggerated Southern accent. ''You can call me Hillary Rodham Gump.... You know, that's my house back there. My mama always told me the White House is like a box of chocolates. It's pretty on the outside, but inside there's a lot of nuts.''
From there on the Gridiron audience was Hillary's. They loved all 4-1/2 minutes of it -- and gave her a long standing ovation when it was over.
What both Kennedy and Mrs. Clinton were able to do at the Gridiron show goes far beyond crowd-pleasing appearances. Like Nancy Reagan's boffo performance in 1982 -- when she razzed herself and her love of clothes by donning hand-me-downs and singing ''Second Hand Clothes'' -- John Kennedy and Hillary Clinton were bettering public perceptions about themselves.
While the first lady was helping herself and, incidentally, her husband also, House minority leader Richard Gephardt was a flop as the Democratic speaker of the evening. He came on wearing a Boy Scout uniform, short pants and all, and no one even laughed. From then on Mr. Gephardt was pretty much of an embarrassment. Ambassador Robert Strauss, sitting next to me, opined that Gephardt had somehow misjudged his audience. Could he have damaged himself as a presidential candidate of the future? Strauss thought that was possible.