So there stood President Obama, wilting in heavy robes in 100-degree heat at the Sun Devil Stadium, joking about not receiving an honorary degree in exchange for giving the commencement address. Arizona State University decided his body of work wasn’t impressive enough.
After insisting the controversy was much ado about nothing, Obama said he did "learn to never again pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket. And your university president and board of regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS.”
Last Saturday he began his comic riff at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner by telling reporters, editors and celebrities, "You know, I had an entire speech prepared. But now that I’m here, I think I’m going to try something different. Tonight, I’m going to speak from the heart, and speak off the cuff.” At that point, up rose his beloved TelePrompTer, for which he has taken much heat.
"Good evening,” … pause for laughter, Obama began. "Wait a minute, this may not be working."
Then he started over, ostentatiously using notes. "Good evening, everybody, I would like to welcome you to the 10-day anniversary of my first 100 days. My name is Barack Obama; most of you cover me. All of you voted for me.”
He promised that his second 100 days would be so successful they would be finished in 72 days and on the 73rd day he would rest.
As for the vociferously pro-waterboarding Dick Cheney’s conspicuous absence from the dinner, Obama joked the former vice president was busy working on his memoir tentatively titled "How to Shoot Friends and Interrogate People.”
Ah, humor and the presidency. Such a contorted history.
Dozens of White House speechwriters over the years have agonized over how funny, witty and biting to make a sitting president’s speeches. Most of them gave up and gave the audiences policy and boilerplate; reading past presidential speeches is not for the easily bored.
Many of our presidents were dull in public but witty in private. Even the ultra dour Woodrow Wilson, 28th president who created the Federal Trade Commission and won a Nobel Peace Prize, is credited with such witticisms as, "If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
He also said: "A conservative is someone who makes no changes and consults his grandmother when in doubt, and I have long enjoyed the friendship and companionship of Republicans because I am by instinct, a teacher, and I would like to teach them something.”
One of our wittiest presidents was Abraham Lincoln. When a writer asked Lincoln to plug to his book, Lincoln wrote: "For the sort of people who like this book, it is the sort of book those people will like.”
When the chief postal inspector died, a job applicant asked Lincoln if he could take his place. "It’s all right with me if it’s all right with the undertaker,” Lincoln quipped.
During the Civil War when his top general, George McClellan, kept finding excuses not to fight, Lincoln wrote him saying, "My dear McClellan, if you don’t want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for awhile.”
Obama’s instinct is to lighten the mood, whether in private or in public. In tough times likely to get tougher, we need levity and smiles.
There is one person probably not too keen on Obama’s style of humor, the president’s reliable foil, the vice president. Says Obama, "All this change hasn’t been easy. Change never is. So I’ve cut the tension by bringing a new friend to the White House. He’s warm, he’s cuddly, loyal, enthusiastic. You just have to keep him on a tight leash. Every once in a while he goes charging off in the wrong direction and gets himself into trouble. But enough about Joe Biden."
Obama concludes humorous remarks with sober reflection. In Arizona, he agreed that it’s true, his body of work is not finished. "Graduates,” he said. "Don’t ever stop adding to your body of work. I can promise that you will be the better for that continued effort, as will this nation that we all love.”
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)