Verboten: 'Heard the One about Clinton?' Polite Society in D.C. Avoids Off-Color Presidential Jokes

By James Skip Thurman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 1998 | Go to article overview

Verboten: 'Heard the One about Clinton?' Polite Society in D.C. Avoids Off-Color Presidential Jokes


James Skip Thurman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


A wave of biting "blue" humor still ripples across the country at the president's expense. But official Washington is doing its snickering in private.

For late-night television impresarios Jay Leno and David Letterman, the material was irresistible. They told more President Clinton jokes in the past month than they did all of last year. Then, those one-liners are told and retold at office water coolers and throughout cyberspace.

But as Washington enters its "dinner season," a late-winter/ early-spring stretch of award dinners, banquets, and black-tie get-togethers, an unspoken rule has emerged among hosts who organize these polite gatherings: no off-color jokes. Especially at events attended by the president and the first lady. "It's fun to poke fun at the president, but this situation, being uglier than any since Andrew Jackson, makes everyone a little queasy to think some Hollywood type with the sensibilities of a fly will deliver {inappropriate} humor," says Chuck Conconi, editor at large of Washingtonian magazine. The unofficial code was much in evidence at a recent gala for the president at Ford's Theater here. Comedian Whoopi Goldberg, part of the evening's entertainment, faced a crowd with a basketful of material she just couldn't use. "They gave me a whole list of stuff I couldn't mess with," she said with a wink to those gathered. The White House insists it does not discuss entertainment arrangements, instead relying on the good taste of the hosts. "We are responsible for what the president says. They are responsible for the program," explains White House communications director Ann Lewis. Still, good taste has not always prevailed. Two years ago, New York "shock-jock" Don Imus humiliated the hosts of the annual Radio-Television Correspondents Association banquet - and perhaps the first couple, seated nearby - with jokes about personal aspects of the president's life. The performance shocked many in middle America, who caught the performance live and during subsequent reruns on C-SPAN. …

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