Picking Nits Over White House Wits

Several readers have written to reproach me for an offhand remark I made the other day about the entertainment quotient of the presidential candidates.

In a column about the most intriguing and the most boring celebrities of 1987, as selected by People magazine and Alan Caruba, the self-appointed high priest of boredom, I observed:

"My vote for the most boring dozen people in the country goes to the men who are running for President. And Gary makes 13."

Thomas M. Miller calls that "a cheap shot" and complains that it "does our nation a disservice." He adds that "most of those who have elected to run this gauntlet are extremely patriotic men who devote their lives to public service."

"It's bad enough," writes Gerry Jacobs of La Mesa, "that TV has turned political races into beauty contests; surely the print media needn't compound the cheapening of our political process by judging the candidates on their entertainment value. . . ."

"I'm not sure these candidates are any more or less boring than any past candidates," writes Brad Woodhull of Fullerton. "It could well be the exposure to which they are subjected that is the problem. . . ."

I'm sure these readers are right. I am not a political pundit; I judge these men only as a voter, by what I see of them on TV and in the press. If I knew any one of them personally I would probably think him extremely bright and engaging.

Miller is correct in suggesting that the candidates are forced to run a gauntlet created by the public and the press. That is the price of election. And a candidate who cannot stand the intemperate abuse of the campaign does not belong in the White House.

Journalists in America have a long tradition of lampooning politicians, and especially the top man. H. L. Mencken was the most capable practitioner of the art; none today has his power and his wit.

Of politicians in general he wrote: "A good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar or a virtuous harlot. . . ."

No President has been more maligned than Franklin D. Roosevelt. Vilified by the press for his strategy in World War II, he responded with his usual humor: "One of the greatest American soldiers, Robert E. Lee, once remarked on the tragic fact that in the war of his day all the best generals were apparently working on newspapers instead of in the Army. And that seems to be true in all wars."

It is the nature of American politics that few wits get to the White House. John F. Kennedy was one. He knew how Americans felt about politicians. "Mothers may still want their sons to grow up to be President," he said, "but, according to a famous Gallup poll of some years ago, some 73% do not want them to become politicians in the process."

He knew wit was the best defense: "Those of you who regard my political life with some disdain should remember that it made it possible for me to move from being an obscure lieutenant in the United States Navy to commander-in-chief in 14 years with very little technical competence."

Perhaps it was the posthumous disclosure of Kennedy's alleged adulteries that brought about today's more vigilant reporting of candidates' private lives. But Kennedy was not unaware of the peril. Confronted by a Look reporter with a vicious rumor, Kennedy told him: "You print that story and I just might wind up owning Look magazine."

One searches in vain for the wit of Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, though one remark of Nixon's comes to mind. On observing the Great Wall of China for the first time, he is alleged to have said: "It's a Great Wall."

Certainly a great President doesn't have to be a great wit. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were inclined to seriousness. Woodrow Wilson was publicly about as funny as a mortar barrage.

His wit may have saved Abraham Lincoln's sanity. "I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice," he once wrote a friend, "and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it."

Harry Truman probably put his finger on it best when he said: "The buck stops here."

I apologize to the candidates. But remember--each one wants to be the most powerful man in the world.

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