Remember When . . . We Could Laugh at Ourselves?

6 mins read



Do you remember when some journalists assigned to Barack Obama’s White House worried that covering “No Drama Obama” would be boring? When there was such a thing as a news cycle, and presidential messages were often so carefully written and vetted that they were sometimes criticized as calculating and contrived?

Remember these other signposts along the roadway of America’s modern political life?

–When George H.W. Bush glanced fleetingly at his watch and it was considered disrespectful to the tradition of presidential debating?

–When Al Gore’s audible sigh into the microphone during his debate with Bush’s son was criticized as beneath presidential decorum?

–When Gore’s Social Security “lockbox” was about as controversial as 2000 got – until Election Day? 

–How Vice President Dan Quayle’s criticism of fictional TV character Murphy Brown was considered a bold new front in the culture wars?

–When political commentators wondered aloud whether it was “presidential” for Bill Clinton to play his saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show”?

–When Jimmy Carter’s confession to Playboy magazine of having lust in his heart was considered a shocking admission about sex by a politician – and then came Clinton-Lewinsky, the hypocrisy of Newt Gingrich and others who’d had affairs, and Donald Trump’s braggadocio on the “Access Hollywood” tape?

–When Ronald Reagan, at 69, was attacked as too old to run for the presidency?

–When Reagan made a joke about his age at a presidential debate, Walter Mondale laughed at it, and the Republic survived? And in a pre-Twitter world, we were spared the immediate cascade of allegations hurled from the purity police in the rafters at Mondale for selling out?

–The days when Tip O’Neill and Reagan acted like they enjoyed each other’s company, and neither was accused of consorting with the enemy?

–When politicians could make fun of themselves, like when George W. Bush opened a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner (remember those?) with this line: “I always look forward to these dinners where I am supposed to be funny – intentionally.”  

–When, in Bush-speak, “strategery” became a word?  

–When Gore – whom the Washington Post said suffered from the “bore effect” — mocked his own stiffness by being carried onstage at the annual Gridiron Dinner on a dolly, where he stood silent, barely blinking, for two minutes?

–When occasional silence was still considered a leadership attribute?

–When Chris Christie responded to David Letterman’s fat jokes at his expense by going on Letterman’s show as a guest, whipping out a doughnut less than a minute into it and quipping as he ate it, “Didn’t know this [interview] was going to be this long.”

–A columnist could still write the phrase “fat jokes? (Researchers at East Carolina University who studied Christie’s appearance on Letterman’s show described it as “other-disparaging” humor.)

–“Slick Willy” was about as risqué as the pejorative nicknaming in politics got?

–When Congress argued over what to do with a federal budget surplus?

–A politics so mundane and orderly that Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential reelection campaign played it safe with narrow-bore issues like parental-guidance TV microchips to keep kids from watching bad things?

–When lyrics in songs became the subject of congressional hearings because of alleged damage to young minds? 

–Before Claudia Conway was born, before she became cause celebre for social media bottom feeders?

–When conservative White House press secretary Ari Fleischer called liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne to thank him for writing that politicians’ kids were not fair game?

–Supreme Court hearings before Democrats met Robert Bork, and the constitutional process was swallowed by the perpetual political campaigns? 

–The deathbed apology of Lee Atwater, an earlier practitioner of today’s slash-and-burn politics, expressing remorse for the “naked cruelty” he displayed toward presidential nominee Michael Dukakis?

–As Atwater lay dying from brain cancer, how his Democratic counterpart, Ron Brown, called him regularly to check in and buck him up? (“And I have learned a lesson,” Atwater said. “Politics and human relationships are separate. I may disagree with Ron Brown’s message, but I can love him as a man.”)

Remember that?

Chuck Raasch was a national correspondent for USA TODAY and Gannett from 1982-2013, and later was the Washington correspondent for the St Louis Post-Dispatch. He is the author of the nonfiction book about Civil War correspondent Sam Wilkeson, “Imperfect Union: A Father’s Search for His Son in the Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.”





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