NewsStreet Scribe

Generations of Presidents Provided Fodder for Comedians

George Carlin in 2008. Credit: Bonnie Murphy

“In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem,” said comedian George Carlin. The legendary funnyman died in 2008, long before another show-biz personality named Donald Trump became president, but Carlin’s comedy was prescient when he warned his audiences, “If you have selfish and ignorant citizens, you’re gonna get selfish, ignorant leaders.”

Carlin was just one of a legion of comics, cartoonists and commentators who have skewered presidents since the earliest days of the White House. With Trump’s continuing legal troubles and Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, pleading guilty to federal charges on June 20, it’s a sure bet that satire, sarcasm and caustic humor will loom large in the upcoming 2024 election.

Standup comic Mort Sahl castigated presidents and politicians from the Eisenhower administration to the Trump regime until his death at age 94 in 2021. Of Trump, Sahl joked that the president had been “hospitalized for an attack of modesty.” After the GOP scandals of Watergate and Iran-Contra, Sahl quipped that “Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Nixon couldn’t tell the truth, and Reagan couldn’t tell the difference.” When President John Kennedy brought a rocking chair to the White House in the early 1960s, Sahl called it a perfect symbol for the Democratic presidential administration because a rocking chair “gives a semblance of motion without really going anywhere.”

Kennedy’s administration was a treasure trove for humorists until the young president was assassinated in Dallas nearly 60 years ago. Humor columnist Art Buchwald was an unofficial court jester in Kennedy’s Camelot. Vaughn Meador’s comedy album The First Family parodied the president and his kin. It got a surprise boost when the president himself told reporters that he thought Meador’s JFK imitation “sounded more like Teddy,” John’s brother. 

Mad Magazine was at its peak during Kennedy’s brief time in office, and nobody could caricature JFK like Mad’s artist, Mort Drucker. His illustrations for “East Side Story,” the magazine’s 1963 satire of the musical West Side Story, were spot-on renderings of JFK, Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro, Charles de Gaulle and other world leaders.

Herbert Block, whose drawings were published for decades in the Washington Post under the pen name Herblock, was the dean of editorial cartoonists. During his decades-long career he aimed his acid-dipped pen at a cavalcade of American presidents and other politicians. It was Herblock who famously drew Richard Nixon with a 5-o’clock shadow, and it was Herblock who coined the word “McCarthyism” in one of his 1950s cartoons lambasting Red-baiting Wisconsin GOP Sen. Joe McCarthy.

Mark Twain was probably America’s most beloved humorist, and his comments often were prescient and relevant to America today. “We have the best government money can buy,” jibed Twain. He blasted President Theodore Roosevelt, saying, “We are by long odds the most ill-mannered nation, civilized or savage, that exists on the planet today, and our president stands for us like a colossal monument visible from all the ends of the earth.”

Sometimes presidents and politicians can make memorable one-liners themselves, as when JFK told a group of Nobel Prize winners that they represented the greatest intellectual assemblage at the White House “since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” One of the all-time funniest political quips came from GOP senator and 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole, who spotted former presidents Carter, Ford and Nixon at a White House event. “There they are,” said Dole. “See no evil, hear no evil and… evil.”

In the spirit of presidential parody and after the recent death of singer Astrud Gilberto, I wrote this take-off of “The Girl From Ipanema,” her signature song:

“Orange-tanned and old and grumpy/ the guy from Mar-a-Lago goes walking/ and when he passes, each court he passes goes ‘Nah.’/ When he talks it’s just incitement that led up to his big indictment/ and when he gasses, each court he passes says ‘Bah.’/ Oh, but his base whimpers sadly./ How can they love him so madly?/ Yet they have sold their souls gladly,/ but his run for the presidency just looks like a perp walk to me… ” 

Presidents who bristle at the long tradition of lampooning leaders should remember Harry Truman’s words: “Do your duty, and history will do you justice.”