Nine American presidents appear with less majesty but more humanity in this light but slight series of anecdotes and jokes from former UPI White House bureau chief and Hearst syndicated columnist Thomas (Front Row at the White House, 1999).
In sparring with the press, a kind of political vaudeville becomes the weapon of choice for presidents, first ladies, children, and aides, the author avers. Each chief executive had his particular brand of humor, though she allows that Nixon’s and Carter’s were in noticeably short supply. Kennedy and Reagan were the best at using jocularity to defuse the acrimony often spawned by their policies. LBJ’s earthy humor often relied on his peerless gift for mimicry. Ford had the heartiest laugh, while Clinton could take joshing and give it back. The two George Bushes, she observes, inspired as much unintentional as intentional humor in their “dynasty of disjointed communication.” Many of Thomas’s stories came from colleagues or were witnessed by the author at Gridiron Club, White House Correspondents Association, or Radio-Television Correspondents dinners. Sometimes the longtime dean of the White House press corps appears more impressed by her own acidic wit (e.g., dressing up as Maureen Reagan and singing to the tune of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”) than by her subjects. At the same time, she is enough of a good sport to point out jibes at her own expense, such as Bob Dole’s one-liner that her dress for that evening came from “the J. Edgar Hoover Collection.” In addition, these pages capture some deeply sad undercurrents in the presidents’ tenure, most notably in LBJ’s explanation during his final Oval Office days that that he was going home, “where they take care of you when you’re sick and they care when you die.”
Inherently amiable and sometimes uproarious, if often old-hat.