America's funniest presidents

When a president or presidential candidate is really funny at the annual Gridiron Club banquet, the news quickly gets around that he has made a boffo speech and his witticisms usually are given much play in the national media.

The best example of this was when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy dealt with complaints that his father's money was buying primary elections for him by reading this imaginary telegram from his father at a Gridiron affair in the spring of 1960, just before primaries in Wisconsin and West Virginia: "Dear Jack, don't buy one more vote than necessary. I'll be damned if I'll pay for a landslide."

Kennedy stirred up laughter from coast to coast with that quip and in the process made the accusation against him look trivial and gave his candidacy a huge boost. He went on to pick up 56 percent of the vote in Wisconsin and then pretty much wrapped up his party's nomination by winning 61 percent of the vote in West Virginia.

President Reagan's jokes at Gridiron functions were well aired in the press and, thus, stirred up a lot of chuckles among both supporters and critics. And Nancy Reagan helped herself immensely - and her husband - when she made fun of herself and the charges that she was living too grandly by appearing on the Gridiron stage in rags while singing self-deprecatory words to the song, "Second Hand Rose."

But President George W. Bush somehow got very little note - indeed, his speech mainly went unnoticed - for a recent Gridiron performance that certainly was a crowd pleaser.

After a long evening when we all had been sitting and squirming on hard seats from 7 p.m. to nearly 11 p.m., President Bush walked slowly up to the mike and with deep concern in his voice said, "Good Morning." That stirred up a roar of laughter.

Then he said, "I want to wish all my best to President Clinton on his recovery from an operation in New York. When he woke up he was surrounded by his loved ones: Hillary, Chelsea ... and my dad."

Then Bush spoke of his pride in having three new top members of his administration that he had just appointed sitting alongside him on the speakers' platform. And with that he turned to Vice President Cheney, sitting nearby, and said, "Dick, maybe you could point them out to me."

Bush kept up this poking-fun-at-himself approach to the end of his relatively short speech, when he said: "The other night when I was praying, I said, 'Lord, what mistakes have I made?' Then I heard a deep voice speaking out. 'George,' it said, 'this is going to take more than one night.' "

The people I talked to afterward - and the next afternoon at the repeat performance of the Gridiron show - were all speaking so highly of the president's performance and calling it the best speech of an evening that included superb speeches by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel.

I've had the privilege of an up-close view of presidents for more than a half century. And from that perspective, I would say that President Kennedy was far and away the wittiest. During my many days of traveling with Kennedy (sometimes sitting beside him aboard a plane for an interview) I found him, as did my colleagues, great company. He was so easy to be around. And it was just part of him to flavor his comments about great issues and his plans for the nation with witty observations.

Actually, wit has been a rare commodity in the White House through the years. Certainly, Eisenhower and Truman before him did not shine with wit and humor. And of the presidents that followed, only Reagan really stood out in the humor field.

Reagan, the former actor, loved a good joke and no one could tell one better. And when he was delivering speeches meant to entertain - as at a Gridiron show - no president ever came up to Reagan when it came to the delivery of a joke. He always paused in just the right place - and hit the punch line just right. His training showed.

The elder Bush was never more than an adequate speaker - or deliverer of humorous lines. President Clinton was good - often very funny - in delivering speeches. But when he wasn't on the platform, he showed very little noteworthy wit of his own when mixing with others in the political world or with the press.

And George W. Bush? He certainly delivered that Gridiron speech well. And when he's completely on his own traveling the country, giving speeches, I've seen him come up on TV again and again with witty comments when reacting to what he's seeing and hearing at that moment. President Bush is a witty improviser. He's no Kennedy - but who is?

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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