Our current President never laughs. I find this somewhat disturbing. I have discovered humor to be a leavening force in life which balances a person and in my view enhances one’s humanity. A recent New York Times article made the same observation about the commander-in-chief, noting the way in which his public pronouncements are always concluded with a smirk rather than a smile. In fact, the author continued, the closest the President has come to laughing was during a campaign speech where he was unexpectedly interrupted by a barking dog.
Looking back over my lifetime, I would judge that those of our nation’s political figures who demonstrated a healthy sense of humor were more popular than those stony-faced curmudgeons who often served as targets for our political cartoonists. Researching the one-liners or quips of our modern-era chief executives, I found that, starting with Calvin Coolidge, the volume of political reporting increased and access to public figures became more accommodating. One report cited an encounter with “Silent Cal” on a Sunday morning as he and his wife returned to the White House from church services. A reporter asked the topic of the minister’s sermon, and Cal replied, “Sin.” A second interrogator followed up, querying what the minister had said about it. “He’s against it,” the President coolly summarized. When Ronald Reagan was wounded in an assassination attempt and was being rushed into surgery at George Washington University Hospital, he startled the chief surgeon by asking en route whether the doctor was a Democrat or a Republican.
President Eisenhower, who decidedly was not known as a jocular person, did however, manage to contribute to the presidential reservoir of famous quotes. The occasion was shortly after his vice-president had been nominated by the Republicans to represent the party in the 1960 election. A reporter approached Eisenhower and asked if he could identify a particular issue or policy area that Nixon had been responsible for during his administration. Eisenhower replied that “if the reporter could give him a few days, he was sure he could come up with something.” It is generally agreed, however, that the master of presidential zingers was John F. Kennedy. Early in my State Department career I happened to be involved in overseeing travel arrangements for the U.S. delegation to the Alliance for Progress conference in Chile. On the day of the group’s return, I received a phone call from the White House inviting the group to a reception with the president. We gathered in the East Room, where the president circulated among the delegates. He stopped to shake my hand and, as we talked, Senator Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin interrupted us to thank the president for his remarks the day before at the annual meeting of the American Dairy Association. The senator related that the attendees had especially appreciated it when the president had slyly reached under the podium for a glass of milk and then drank it to conclude his speech. The senator proudly asked how long the president had been drinking milk. Kennedy calmly shot back, “Since yesterday.”
Dwight Eisenhower once noted, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” And journalist Eric Sevareid cautioned that, “Next to power without honor, the most dangerous thing in the world is power without humor.” So, c’mon Mr. Trump. You want to appear presidential, right? Laugh a little.