Would John F. Kennedy have appeared on “Between Two Ferns”? David Gergen doesn’t think so. The veteran presidential adviser and cable commentator tweeted on Wednesday that it is “unimaginable” that Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Reagan would have appeared on the satirical “Ferns” talk show on the Funny or Die website, as President Obama did this week.
“They carefully protected majesty of their office,” Mr. Gergen tweeted.
Well, maybe. It’s certainly true this bunch was clear about the demands of the office for a certain formality. Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for disrespecting the authority of the president. Eisenhower – an experienced leader – got furious with people who wasted his time. Kennedy wore expensive clothes and made speeches with rhetorical flourishes that sometimes seemed translated from Latin. Reagan wore a suit coat in the Oval Office as a sign of respect for the presidency itself.
Some of them would never have appeared on “Ferns” under Mr. Obama’s circumstances. Republicans Ike and Reagan wouldn’t have backed a new national health-care mandate, meaning they would not have needed to go on TV to push young people to sign up.
But c’mon, “majesty”? All modern presidents have known that they need to strike a balance between projecting strength and humanizing their office. And they are human, after all. Truman publicly threatened physical damage to a critic who ripped his daughter’s singing. Eisenhower appeared on “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” a pioneering TV show hosted by comedians Abbott and Costello, who themselves were no more dignified then “Ferns” host Zach Galifianakis.
Kennedy ... OK, we’re not sure he would have traded barbs with a star of “Hangover.” He’d have sent Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr. to do the job. The old movie and TV pro Reagan would have loved it, though, if it weren’t about expanding the government’s role in health care. He did comedy bits with his old pal Bob Hope after winning the Oval Office. And of course, he famously appeared with a monkey as a co-star during his Hollywood days.
What’s maybe more interesting about Gergen’s tweet is the fact that there are presidents he skipped. What about LBJ? Yeah, he’d have done it, but the host would not have gotten a word in edgewise. President Nixon’s not mentioned because he famously appeared on the sketch show “Laugh-In” during the 1968 campaign. He uttered one of the show’s signature lines: “Sock it to me.”
Bill Clinton talked about his underwear on MTV. Given that context, “Two Ferns” would have been just a morning’s work. George W. Bush appeared on the game show “Deal or No Deal,” hosted by that well-known policy analyst Howie Mandel.
We don’t mean to pick on Gergen here: Lots of others had the same opinion. On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly opined that Abe Lincoln would never have done what Obama did. During Tuesday’s daily press briefing at the White House, ABC News’s Jim Avila asked whether Obama had damaged “the dignity of the office.”
“No,” replied presidential spokesman Jay Carney. “We obviously assess opportunities that we have and look at whether or not they’re going to be successful and wise, and I think we made the right call here.”