A Funny Data-Point: The VP as comic-in-chief

I suppose I should be writing about Ukraine or Syria – big things are happening in the world. But my mind is elsewhere. I found an intriguing new datapoint for my dissertation. Influential vice presidents are funny, and can make the president laugh.

Mondale is funny, it did not translate into a broader appeal, but people who worked with him always remarked on his quick and ready wit, which he happily turned on himself. When asked how he thought one of his speeches went he answered, “I don’t know, I fell asleep half-way through.”  After losing the 1984 Presidential election he said, “All my life I wanted to run for the Presidency in the worst way. And that’s just what I did.”

He is also a big Monty Python fan.

George H.W. Bush, according to people I interviewed, loved a good joke. They used to circulate funny memos around the office (at their lunches, Reagan and Bush told each other jokes.) As President, when he learned that Saddam Hussein intended to try him in a “people’s court” he sent a memo to White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray instructing him to go to Baghdad an defend him. At the height of a crisis he had time for a little fun with his advisors.

Gore, by many accounts was really, really funny.  My interviews have mentioned it, as did several White House memoirs.  George Stephanopoulos reports that Gore could always make the President laugh, delivering daily briefings on the John Wayne-Lorena Bobbit affair, and poking fun at Clinton when he was frustrated prepping for press conferences.

I don’t know about Quayle, but there is substantial evidence that Cheney had a good sense of humor.  In his memoirs, Bush mentioned Cheney’s dry wit. A few weeks before leaving office, there was a conference of White House chiefs of staff to meet the incoming chief of staff – Rahm Emmanuel. Cheney had been Ford’s chief of staff. Each one offered their advice to Emmanuel. Cheney suggested, “Whatever you do, make sure you’ve got the vice president under control.”

The vice president has long been the target of humor, but this is different.  I don’t have many datapoints here (but my whole research project is pretty small-n). But, the ability to make the President laugh – particularly at himself – is a real asset. Both in building the needed chemistry between the POTUS and the Veep, but also in managing the inevitable and massive stresses of the top office.

Too bad Spiro Agnew couldn’t make Nixon laugh – they both could have used it. And ultra-serious Henry A. Wallace almost certainly would have been well-served by a good sense of humor in dealing with the breezy, witty Roosevelt.

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