Verboten: 'Heard the One About Clinton?'

Polite society in D.C. avoids off-color presidential jokes.

A wave of biting "blue" humor still ripples across the country at the president's expense. But official Washington is doing its snickering in private.

For late-night television impresarios Jay Leno and David Letterman, the material was irresistible. They told more President Clinton jokes in the past month than they did all of last year. Then, those one-liners are told and retold at office water coolers and throughout cyberspace.

But as Washington enters its "dinner season," a late-winter/ early-spring stretch of award dinners, banquets, and black-tie get-togethers, an unspoken rule has emerged among hosts who organize these polite gatherings: no off-color jokes. Especially at events attended by the president and the first lady.

"It's fun to poke fun at the president, but this situation, being uglier than any since Andrew Jackson, makes everyone a little queasy to think some Hollywood type with the sensibilities of a fly will deliver [inappropriate] humor," says Chuck Conconi, editor at large of Washingtonian magazine.

The unofficial code was much in evidence at a recent gala for the president at Ford's Theater here. Comedian Whoopi Goldberg, part of the evening's entertainment, faced a crowd with a basketful of material she just couldn't use. "They gave me a whole list of stuff I couldn't mess with," she said with a wink to those gathered.

The White House insists it does not discuss entertainment arrangements, instead relying on the good taste of the hosts. "We are responsible for what the president says. They are responsible for the program," explains White House communications director Ann Lewis.

Still, good taste has not always prevailed. Two years ago, New York "shock-jock" Don Imus humiliated the hosts of the annual Radio-Television Correspondents Association banquet - and perhaps the first couple, seated nearby - with jokes about personal aspects of the president's life. The performance shocked many in middle America, who caught the performance live and during subsequent reruns on C-SPAN. The association, for its part, sent a letter of apology to Mr. Clinton.

POLITICAL satire is deeply embedded in Washington culture. It is used to deride (witness jokes about Dan Quayle) and to poke fun (as in Al Gore lampooning his own stiffness). And humor tends to resonate with the public. Jokes "are like a telegram of political thought," says Dan Amundson of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which has studied the latest barrage of jokes about Clinton. "People may not follow political discourse, but they get information from [jokes] and will pass one-liners along to friends."

But given the current presidential imbroglio over sexual-misconduct allegations, hosts this year are giving special attention to choosing entertainers. There was concern even before the Lewinsky scandal broke. "I began thinking seriously about this back in September," says Reuters correspondent Larry McQuillan, president of the White House Correspondents Association. "Imus solidified the need to use common sense in finding an entertainer."

Organizers of Washington's banquets say they are not censoring comedians. Instead, they are simply not inviting entertainers who may not be able to resist the temptation to mine Clinton's alleged sexual misconduct for humor.

Mr. McQuillan asked Ray Romano, of the TV sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," to entertain the correspondents' gathering later this spring. "The whole point of our dinner is to show that even though it seems we are at each other's throats, we do respect the office and the presidency itself. This dinner is to underscore that," McQuillan says.

Perhaps the boldest effort to grab a laugh at the president's expense occurred at the Washington Press Club Foundation Congressional Dinner earlier this month. Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts took a stab at a sexually suggestive joke, but it seemed to misfire, winning only a tepid response.

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