"It is assuredly better to go laughing than crying thro' the rough journey of life." President George Washington
March 5, 2020 - October 4, 2020
Liberty & Laughter: The Lighter Side of the White House gives visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lighter side of life in the White House. Entertaining First Family anecdotes, interactive multimedia, and amusing artifacts unveil presidential pranks and inside jokes, and awards to the wittiest, quippiest, most mischievous President and First Lady grace the pursuit of happiness walk. Revealing how humor has evolved from our Founding Fathers to the present day makes one thing readily apparent – laughter remains vital to a thriving democracy.
"We grow up when we have our first good laugh - at ourselves." Eleanor Roosevelt
"Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do." Abraham Lincoln
"I love humor, and the best humor is when you make fun of yourself." George W. Bush
From Abraham Lincoln's affection for amusing anecdotes to Barack Obama's postmodern use of pop culture humor . . . Presidents have relied on wit and a solid punch line to communicate with the public they serve. But the use of comedy to persuade isn't limited to the occupants of 1800 Pennsylvania Avenue - humor as a critique of the dominant forces in American society, and major public policy decisions, has a long history in our nation. Be it gentle or biting, humor, satire, and wit engage us, inform us, and connect the American people to their elected leaders.
"A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done." Dwight D. Eisenhower
President as Comedian:
As Landon Parvin, comedy writer for President Ronald Reagan and others once said, " . . . it's amazing how important humor is considered to be in this town." The President of the United States - often referred to as The Leader of the Free World - employs a series of leadership skills to persuade others to go along with their vision for America. One of those traits - humor - conveys likability and puts the President and the people he serves on common ground. But balance is important. Some experts have argued that if strategic use of wit is an essential element of leadership, too much could hurt you. As Jody Powell, White House Press Secretary for President Jimmy Carter once famously said, "we've self-deprecated ourselves down to 18% of the polls."
Entertainer-in-Chief: The President's Got Talent
Lights. Camera. Action. What a better way for a President or First Lady to connect with the American people than through a comedic dance, a show of athletic prowess, or even a genuine performance of musical expertise? The same holds true for the annual press dinners that are a Washington, D. C. institution. These evenings provide the rare opportunity to put politics aside and enjoy a lighthearted night of camaraderie, banter, and oftentimes self-deprecating jokes on the part of the President.
"How kind of you to write . . . I'm glad you spoke your mind . . . I foolishly didn't know you had one." Barbara Bush Letter to Marge Simpson
Presidential Humor in the Age of Television
"The President doesn't really have to generate humor until we get into the 20th century when the President becomes this celebrity figure in American politics that he is today. And once you get into the first radio and especially the television age then the ability of the President to stand and deliver and make people laugh becomes important." Dr. H. W. Brands, Presidential Historian and Author
Presidential Humor in Digital Media
The advent of social and digital media allowed Presidential administrations to reach the American people at home and on other mobile devices - and without filter of the traditional press. As Stanford University professor Nate Persily told The Washington Post, "Presidents have always wanted to talk to all Americans at once, have them pay attention, and have believe what they are saying." This is especially critical when a majority of Americans are getting their news on social media. Take, for example, President Obama's 2015 State of the Union address. In the lead up to the speech, the White House posted 18 videos on YouTube, including a video of President Obama announcing a new community college tuition plan. That video received over 8 million views alone - a whopping quarter of the number of people who watched the actual address on television that year.
At a press conference at the end of his first White House year, President John F. Kennedy was asked, "If you had to do it over again would you work for the Presidency and would you recommend the job to others?" He answered, "Well, the answer to the first is yes and the answer to the second is no. I don't recommend it to others, at least not for a while."
Mock President: A History of Presidential Impersonators
Presidential impersonators have the ability to challenge and shape the President's carefully crafted persona, from the way the President walks and talks to the very words that come out of his mouth. Due to their evocative resonance as well as repetition over time and across programming spaces, impersonations such as those seen on national platforms like Saturday Night Live play a significant role in the way the public views and remembers Presidents.
"If the American people wanted Bob Hope for their President, they should have elected him." President Jimmy Carter
Political sparring during a Presidential debate is not for the faint of heart. Though most debaters come armed with prepared answers with which to pummel their opponents, candidates must often improvise a witty on-the-spot retort to get out of jams or deliver the knock-out punch.
"Any man who has had the job I've had and didn't have a sense of humor wouldn't still be here." President Harry S. Truman
Making Friends or Friendly Fire
From the 1800s when reporters waited outside President Abraham Lincoln's second story White House office waiting for the latest scoop, to the regular televising of press briefings during President Bill Clinton's administration, the press and the Presidency have been connected. And while the relationship can sometimes be strained, there have also been moments of levity and laughter.
President Ronald Reagan's humor was ever-present, even in the aftermath of a serious 1981 assassination attempt. When the First Lady arrived at the hospital, the very first thing he said was, "Honey, I forgot to duck."
Facing the Press
Press conferences are high-risk performances for a President. They are usually unable to control the specific nature of the questions and may be pressured to answer a question they'd rather not discuss. For this reason, humor can be an effective tool to deflect attention (humor as shield) or to make friends (humor as an embrace) of the press, and by extension, the public.
Humor, satire, and free speech are paramount to a thriving democracy. Political cartoons grew in popularity with the increase in newspaper and magazine circulation in the 1800s. Political cartoons address the themes and problems of their historical era, communicating powerful ideas in a humorous manner and persuading readers to adopt a particular point of view. Interpreting political cartoons require a high degree of visual literacy - sometimes, the full meaning of the cartoon is too subtle to grasp by the casual reader. To fully understand a cartoon, it helps to have an understanding of the basic techniques used by cartoonists as well as a knowledge of history and current events.
"It is very important for society and individuals either to collectively or individually laugh." George W. Bush
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