President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

By Lou Cannon | Go to book overview

8
KIDDING ON THE SQUARE

It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure why take the chance?

RONALD REAGAN, MARCH 28, 19871

REAGAN'S SENSE OF HUMOR was a key to his character. He was the resident humorist and gag writer in a White House where nearly everything else was done for him while he engaged in governance by anecdote. While adversaries interpreted his heavy reliance on anecdotes as a telltale reflection of a deficient intellect, Reagan treasured humorous stories and knew that his willingness to poke fun at himself was a vital component of his popularity. A sense of humor was essential to the role Reagan had created for himself in Hollywood and politics and, in humorist Bob Orben's phrase, the basis for the "balance of goodwill" 2 upon which he drew in time of trouble.

Reagan came to this role quite naturally. His father, Jack Reagan, had a gift for storytelling, common among Irish-Americans and useful for any salesman. And his mother, Nelle, nurtured Reagan's interest in dramatics, for which he had a natural flair. Reagan's appreciation for anecdotes was further honed in Hollywood, where the self-deprecating jokes that form an essential characteristic of Jewish humor were deeply embedded in the film culture. One of Hollywood's most valued ceremonies is the "roast," an entertainment at which celebrities are feted with an exchange of personal insults that concludes in sentimental tribute to the guest of honor. Reagan was an adept participant in such events, and he was pleased to learn in Sacramento that the roast also prospers in politics, perhaps because of the respite such events provide from the ferocity of daily political combat. As president, Reagan exploited his mastery of this art form, fully matching Washington reporter Owen Ullmann's description of him as "the Johnny Carson of national politics, the Joker-in-Chief of the United States." 3 Reagan quipped, kidded, and bantered in nearly every White House meeting,

-95-

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