Comedian-in-chief: presidential jokes as enthymematic crisis rhetoric.

Author:Waisanen, Don
Position:Report
 
FREE EXCERPT

These [press] dinners were a useful moment to defuse with humor what controversy was festering. That spring, we tried to "lance the boil" of fundraising scandals with humor.

--Michael Waldman (2000, 165), Director of Speechwriting for Bill Clinton

Throughout U.S. history, presidents have met personal and public problems with the aid of trusted advisors, military counsels, or media consultants. Yet the chief executive has found another instrument for managing policies and perceptions--jokes. As might be imagined, an expectation that one of the president's many roles should include "comedian" is relatively unprecedented. While George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt could be commended for their wit (Alisky 1990), throughout much of U.S. history a prospect that presidents should deliver regular, extensive comic monologues to the nation may have conflicted with the office's gravity. Even exceptions like Richard Nixon's four-second appearance on Laugh-In in 1968 seemed to prove the rule for a separation of mirth and state.

Much has changed in recent decades, with candidates, politicians, and presidents routinely presenting themselves to audiences through late-night shows and other comedic events. Clinton remarked that "20 minutes on The Tonight Show did more for my career than speaking for two days at the Democratic National Convention," a point underscored by David Letterman's advice to presidential candidates: "let me remind you of one thing: the road to Washington runs through me" (Fox News 2005, par. 20; Kolbert 2004, par. 22). During his first term alone, President Barack Obama visited The Tonight Show (twice), the Late Show with David Letterman, The Daily Show (twice), and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where he told jokes and conducted song parodies (Fox News 2012). In this context, presidents have hired joke writers and even include staff from programs like The Simpsons and The Daily Show on their speechwriting teams (Nichols 2012; Yardley 2004).

Jokes can serve many purposes in political communication. Politicians have used humor as a "velvet weapon" to chastise opponents, legitimate actions, or engage in diplomacy (Meyer 1990, 76; Speier 1998; Yarwood 1993). Humor can create liking for a public figure or distract attention from particular topics (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969, 188; Schlesinger 2007, par. 15). According to some scholars, humor may even be evolving from a "means of dealing with reality to a mode of defining reality" in presidential campaigns (Smith and Voth 2002, 124). Overall, much can be learned about the boundaries of presidential communication from humor because "the comedic plays on the ambiguity of terms, the multiplicity of audiences, and the instability of premises" (Warnick 1997, 77-78). While humor can certainly speak truth to power, presidential jokes underscore how those in power can also use humor to construct truths, challenging scholars to examine its uses and forms as a persuasive strategy.

This study contributes to interdisciplinary projects seeking to analyze rhetorical histories of the laughable, outline humor's devices and conventions, and explore the possibilities and limitations of comedy in politics (see Bakhtin 1984; Pickering and Lockyer 2009; Virno 2008). To understand the contours of presidential jokes as they have evolved, I examined every publically available presidential White House Correspondent's Dinner (WHCD) speech over the last century. (1) Over time, an expectation has arisen for presidents to deliver an annual "funny" speech during each WHCD, which spotlights the changing nature of the presidency itself. For scope, the WHCD dinners were selected as the president's most public and highly regarded of the entertaining dinners in Washington, DC, every year (Katz 2003). The president often delivers similar comic monologues at the Alfalfa, Gridiron, and Radio & TV Correspondents' dinners, which are more private, insider dinners with less media coverage. By presidential joke writers' own admissions, the WHCD dinner speeches are now approached with strategic purpose, as "the comic answer to that week's weekly crisis," because "humor's biggest payoff can come at the hour of maximum danger" (Katz 2003, 3, 228). These texts hence provide a window into the evolving functions of humor as part of presidents' strategic communication.

In this article, I concentrate on one function of jokes in presidential discourse: the ability to talk about difficult or taboo subjects through jokes' deeply enthymematic ways of communicating, providing insights into how and why presidents started using humor with such frequency. That is, working with multiple factors shaping the modern presidency, the elastic and inventive nature of enthymematic speech offers a space within which presidents can speak indirectly when facing crises, inviting audiences to sanitize unstated, shared commitments and move pressing issues outside immediate lines of criticism. Under similar terms, after years of writing jokes for President Clinton's WHCD speeches, Mark Katz came to the following conclusion: "The thesis we arrived at was we can do jokes about the smoke and not the fire. We can do jokes about the hoopla of impeachment, but not what brought us to the brink of impeachment" (CNBC 2004, par. 63). The WHCD speeches demonstrate how the rhetorical capacities of presidents have been extended through jokes' enthymematic smoke, attempting to turn perceived losses into gains by creeping up to the edge of the fire--a precipice that holds the possibility for tragedy to become comedy, and vice versa, given the risk involved.

To be clear, this study focuses on the features of presidents' jokes rather than any effects that might be attributed to such rhetoric. It will discuss presidential jokes as invitations for audiences to inhabit particular constructions of reality, without making claims about the exact influence of these acts. This approach is underscored by Day's (2011, 23) case for understanding humor in terms of "incremental effects ... of slowly shifting [public] debate"--of rhetoric that can circulate in nonlinear ways rather than as one-shot attempts at persuasion that accomplish immediate or significant political work. That the executive branch and media commentators have characterized WHCD jokes as important to the presidential agenda is taken as a starting point for inquiry (see Obeidallah 2013). The rise of 24/7 news cycles, scandal reporting, comedic programming, and many other media factors clearly play into presidential turns to humorous discourse. But this analysis will focus on the operations of humor as presidents attempt to open persuasive spaces, high-lighting how jokes' enthymematic qualities, as an analytic perspective, carry explanatory value for and correspond with trends in presidential communication and beyond. Rather than reducing the development of presidential joke making to single causes (e.g., the advance of entertaining talk shows), an enthymematic view underscores the multiple elements likely supporting the eventual acceptability of these practices, such as the increasing difficulties of message control and expectations for interactivity in presidential speech.

This article will first offer a conceptual overview for the enthymeme as a rhetorical response to crises, before turning to an analysis of U.S. presidents' WHCD speeches. I chart the use of deeply enthymematic joking in presidential communication historically, demonstrating the functions of humorous messaging through three periods of the WHCD: Coolidge to Johnson, which appears to have provided a foundation for more recent presidential choices; Nixon to Bush Sr., in which the enthymematic capacities of jokes were increasingly tested and established; and finally, Clinton through Obama, a period in which the strategic use of enthymematic, crisis-directed humor has been amplified during the WHCD speeches, with some critical exceptions.

Crises, Enthymemes, and Joking Rhetoric

This article uses a broad definition for "crises" as material or perceived problems that may undermine a president's image or political standing in audiences' minds. In this view, both the material outbreak of a war or a developing perception that the president negotiates poorly could be crises. My definition partly follows Pearson and Clair's (1998) understanding of crises as impending, high-stakes events that threaten organizations or leaders through their ambiguity. (2) Yet scholars should not see presidential crisis rhetoric as a homogenous form of discourse, given its evolving shape and functions (Dow 1989). Kiewe (1994 xvii, xxiii, emphasis added) writes that presidential crisis rhetoric "consists of the discursive products created and transacted through an interaction between the president, press, and the public, and serves to legitimize (or delegitimize) a given situation as critical." This flexible conception urges researchers to see presidents as both reacting to and creating crises in many different ways through rhetoric. The crisis rhetoric literature has examined communication strategies like apologia, instruction, and differentiation (Hoffman and Ford 2010). (3) Within this tradition, humor has been seen as a tool for negotiating economic crises, coping with stress, repairing one's image, and as a method often employed by underserved populations--but the slippery nature of humor can also create its own problems in public affairs (Achter 2008; Compton 2011; Kuipers 2011; Maxwell 2003; Waisanen 2011; Willems 2011). As another crisis device, I find that enthymematic joking can address political demands and pressures that threaten a president's image or standing.

Two research lines are relevant to presidential jokes as enthymematic. Most accounts of the enthymeme begin with Aristotle (2007, 33, 40), who considered it the strongest proof, which "excite more favorable audience reaction{s}" than discourse...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP