Sunday, July 20, 2003

Winners write history, and they write the jokes too

I would like to make a point which illustrates, in a small way, that political changes lead to all sorts of societal changes which one never would have foreseen.

In recent days I have been enjoying two records that I picked up at thrift stores, The First Family and The First Family Volume Two. These were amongst the first political comedy records. They featured comedian Vaughn Meader's bang-on impersonation of President John F. Kennedy. The First Family, which sold 4 million copies in one month in late 1962, is fairly easy to find in US thrift store bins.

Some of the humour hasn't aged well--it works best for those with a nodding acquaintance of 1960s current affairs--but I liked some of the affectionate jibes directed at the Kennedys. I particularly like the spoof of Jackie's TV tour of the White House (which The First Family relates as amusingly disaster-prone). I also like the visit to the "biographer" and JFK's effort to goose up his ratings by televising a musical TV version of his weekly press conference on First Family, Volume Two.

As Lenny Bruce noted, the events in Dallas also killed Vaughn Meader's career--he was never as big once he retired his comic JFK impersonation. But, after also finishing William Manchester's book, The Death of A President, I wonder if there is another reason why JFK suddenly became "unfunny".

Mr. Manchester's interesting book is excellent at outlining all that happened during those eventful few days in November 1963. But, there is a subtext throughout the book that "extreme rightists" in Dallas were a dangerous threat to Kennedy--despite the fact that the accepted killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, frequently described himself as a Marxist. This is something that was picked up by the media as the echoes of the shots died in Dealey Plaza. Walter Cronkite, for example, was discussing past conservative demonstrations against Adlai Stevenson in Dallas when he had to break in with the news flash that Kennedy had died. (To confrim this for yourself, please listen to the tail end of Cronkite's remarks and the death report here.)

This media subtext had a marked, albeit subconscious, effect on American politics for years to come. The 1960 election had been a virtual dead heat, with JFK garnering about 49 per cent of the vote. However, Mr. Manchester notes that after Kennedy's death 65 per cent of Americans "remembered" that they had voted for John Kennedy in 1960. Furthermore, roughly half of Americans, in a University of Chicago study from the months right after Dallas, now rated Kennedy as one of the top three presidents in American history.

Although Barry Goldwater admits in two of his autobiographies that he might well have lost the 1964 election to John F. Kennedy, he also argues that it was impossible to win against LBJ and a "ghost". In subsequent elections, the spooked Republicans swung back to the center. Nixon was elected, which led to Watergate, which led to Jimmy Carter. If we argue that Ronald Reagan was a good president, many of the good, conservative, things that he did were delayed for 20 years due to the JFK shooting.

Back to humour. As the media condemnation of conservatives for allowing (or causing) JFK to be killed grew, it spilled over into other facets of media such as entertainment.

I'll make a friendly bet with my American readers that most of the post-World-War-Two political jokes that they remember make fun of the political right. Nixon was crooked, Ford was dumb and fell down a lot, Reagan fell asleep a lot, forgot stuff, and acted in dumb movies.

Bill Clinton? I would argue that it doesn't matter whether you are conservative or liberal when you are stuck in sexual shenanigans like that. Do you recall any jokes about his politics, or jokes which poked fun of his liberalism that you didn't hear first on the Rush Limbaugh show?

Diamond Joe Quimby of The Simpsons? Well, although he is portrayed as Kennedyesque--right down to the voice--it seems like an in-joke shared by The Simpsons' writers. I don't think that they have ever said "Yeah, we want to slam the Kennedys", although I welcome correction if they have. On the rare occasions where "John Kennedy" has been shown on The Simpsons, he comes off well. Unlike Richard Nixon, who was slagged on the show while he was still alive. (His endorsement of Duff Beer falls flat with 1960 TV viewers. Also, Nixon is brought onto the Hell jury that is to condemn Homer Simpson after the Devil (Ned Flanders) insists that Nixon owes him a favour.)

Vaughn Meader's 1962-63 spoofs of the Kennedys, I would suggest, were the last time that all Americans agreed that you could laugh at the foibles of both major parties. All political sides have their silly aspects that may be laughed at. However, Oswald's shots in Dallas led to an era where laughing at the left was very unseemly and critical words, in the minds of some, were equated with bullets.

John Kennedy, like all leaders, was imperfect. You may recall the recent news story where an American lady admitted to an affair with John Kennedy while she was an intern in the White House. Readers of revisionist historians, such as Seymour Hirsh, will recall other Kennedy sins of omission and commission.

While the historical record on John Kennedy is being balanced, I'll continue to wonder whether the jokes about Kennedy will ever catch up.

Until then, I have my Vaughn Meader records. "The rubber swan is mine!"