7:00 p.m. Dec. 27
The two-day "Humor and the Presidency" symposium was held in 1986 at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.---a nice clean town filled with lots of serious Dutch people named Hoekstra.
This was the best joke I heard:
Gov. Adlai Stevenson was addressing a Houston Baptist convention in his campaign against Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower. Stevenson was introduced in this fashion: "Gov. Stevenson, we want to make it clear you are here as a courtesy, because Dr. Norman Vincent Peale has instructed us to vote for your opponent." Stevenson strolled to the microphone and said, 'Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealling and the Apostle Peale appalling."
Ford, who died yesterday in California, was 73 at the time. He hosted the affair that also featured columnist Art Buchwald, comics Robert Klein, Mort Sahl and Chevy Chase. This was a memorable road trip on a few levels: 1.] I cannot imagine current or future presidents hosting a self-effacing event like this in an era of such carefully crafted images, 2.] I had a beer with Chase, who complained about his slipped disc due to his many Ford pratfalls on "Saturday Night Live," 3.] It was the only time I ever peed next to a standing president.............
......Let me get that one out of the way first.
I went to the bathroom during a symposium break. I'm standing there and who follows me in but Gerald Ford? He was trailed by one Secret Service agent. They both stood next to me in close single file. We all looked straight ahead. It was like peeing next to Siegfried and Roy. I doubt anything like this will happen again. I'm sure now the Secret Service clears out the bathrooms. For starters, someone like Anderson Cooper would start grilling the president.
During the symposium Ford appeared as a regular guy. I was a fired up 19-year-old in 1974 when Nixon resigned and appreciated how Ford got most of the country to chill. Ford's wife Betty worked for the Equal Rights Amendment. Ford told the FBI to stop spying on people like Dr. Martin Luther King and John Lennon, an about face from 2006 when its even odds someone is reviewing this blog.
And with a name like Ford, he loved the road.
As part of his post-Nixon healing process, Ford visited all 50 states his first 16 months in office.
Our current president barely visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Ford became a walking punch line for his inability to walk a straight line. In 1975 he tumbled down the ramp of Air Force One. He bumped his head on the presidential helicopter. During the symposium as Ford was addressing a $5,000-a-table dinner, the President leaned on the lectern, knocked over a tape recorder and stumbled en route to retrieve the machine. "Is this a set-up?," asked Chase, who was sitting safely near the podium. Perhaps it was. Chase had never met Ford until the symposium. [Profits from the event went back to the Gerald R. Ford Museum.]
In his remarks Ford called the symposium "almost a humanitarian undertaking, an important moment of levity in a world that takes itself too seriously." It doesn't seem like 1986 was that long ago.
You need a strong sense of confidence to laugh at yourself. Ford laughed a lot during the event. He told jokes about himself in his drawn-out Midwestern drawl. During a two-hour evening gala that was taped for HBO, Ford said, "Bob Hope and I play a lot of golf together, but I resent him going around the country commercializng on my golfing inadequecies. The other day we were playing in Vail, Colo. and we were at the first tee when somebody said, "Hey Bob, who's in your favorite foursome?' Bob said, 'Gerry Ford, a faith healer and a paramedic."
Rim shot, please.
Gerald Gardner was a writer for the hit 1964 television satire "That Was The Week That Was." Gardner recalled hearing Ford give a presidential speech in Omaha, Neb. "After the speech he went to a reception," Gardner said. "A sweet little old lady went up to him and put her gloved hand in his and said, 'I hear you spoke here tonight.' And he said, 'Oh, it was nothing.' And she said, 'Yes, that's what I heard."
There were messages at the 1986 symposium that resonate today. Gerald Warren, former deputy press secretary to President Nixon and Ford said, "What is so very important is that the style of the White House is set by the man at the top. If the man at the top doesn't have recognizable humor, chances are the staff of the president will react in somewhat the same way. I think that in some part that resulted in the 'them versus us' mentality we had in the Nixon administration."
Political figures actually used words like "bonding" instead of firing off divisive rhetoric. I remember soft-spoken Bob Orben, a former writer for Ford, Jack Paar and Dick Gregory, who said, "When the president of the United States gives a speech, there is always a huge psychological, emotional and physical separation between him and the audience. Humor reaches out with a warm and affectionate arm around an audience and says, 'I understand you.' But its important in the political arena that humor go even a step further in this bonding influence--that humor is an ideal influence in turning around a negative situation."
Between symposiums and out of the bathroom I was able to corner Ford and ask if the jokes ever hurt. Even his museum featured hundreds of political cartoons lampooning the bumbling president. "Even 10 years later I can say I winced a little and maybe wondered, 'Why are they doing this to me?," he told me. "On occasion I winced at Chevy Chase's impression, but on the other hand, Betty and I used to watch 'Saturday Night Live.' In retrospect they're all in good humor and they're a very important part of American humor."
Ford will be buried Wednesday on a hillside near his museum in Grand Rapids. There will be laughs along with tears, the best tribute to a good life framed by common sense.