In the 1960s the Washington Gridiron Club, made up of veteran reporters who are very sparing of their accolades, sang of President Kennedy: "His wild Irish prose. It sparkles as it glows."
Now, after 20 years, another truly witty President, also with Irish-American credentials, has stepped upon the stage.
Mr. Reagan's quips at the hospital helped buoy the nation at an anxious time. It was his courageous way of reassuring his fellow Americans that all was well -- that he was going to make it.
It was truly an exhibition of grace under pressure. But, beyond that, Mr. Reagan was very, very funny, especially his "All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia" one-liner and his joking to doctors and nurses that "If I'd gotten this much attention in Hollywood, I would have stayed."
On the Saturday night before the tragic occurrences of Monday the President attended the Gridiron's annual banquet. Here Mr. Reagan displayed a sheer delight at the satire that was often directed at him.
"I was watching him, and he was in stitches," another head-table guest, Miss Ginger Rogers, reported. And it was obvious to the Gridiron reporter-actors who looked right out at the President that he was enjoying the humor immensely.
One song that the President seemed to love and which might well have caused other presidents to frown or keep a sober face was the ditty from the Gridiron Club member cast as David A. Stockman, the President's chief budget shaper and spending cutter. "Stockman" entered to a drum roll and, to the music of "Carolina in the Morning," sang: Nothing eases tensions quite like cutting widows' pensions in the morning. Nothing could be sweeter than to beat a welfare cheater as a warning. For the hungry children knocking on my door, I'll have a balanced diet ready by Eighty-four.m
Members of the Gridiron cast searched Mr. Reagan's face to see how he was taking it. He was laughing, obviously loving it. The Stockman impersonator continued: Oh, what fun to swing the ax while easing up the income tax, For you folks Gather round the guillotine and watch me being really mean, To po' folks. If I had Aladdin's lamp for only a day. I'd make a wish and here's what I'd say: Freeze my heart to zero so I'll be my Ronnie's hero Every morning.m
The President himself was the target in the opening number, which sounded the theme of the show -- the triumph of Hollywood in the election. Sung to the tune of "Anything Goes," one verse went: That old cowpoke has won the battle And Hollywood's in the saddle And that just shows Anything goes.m
Mr. Reagan was said to have liked the "Henry Kissinger" song the best. Here a petulant "Henry Kissinger" (Mr. Kissinger was at the head table, too, not far from the President) beseeched Ronald Reagan to the tune of "Cold Cold Heart": I tried so hard, my President, just to get inside your dream. But you're afraid each thing I do is just some evil scheme The memories of my famous past keep us so far apart, How can I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?m
The President got his turn later in the evening. He received a good laugh with his opening line: "Fellow communicators -- and should I say, fellow thespians?" Then came one quick one-liner after another.
For instance, he admitted to occasional breakdowns in communications in his administration, saying "sometimes our right hand doesn't know what our far-right hand is doing."
Guests afterward did not say that the President had been hilariously funny. But they applauded his keen wit. And more than anything else they liked his ability t o laugh at himself -- and his constant good humor.