Is wit necessary to be a good president? I thought about that as I read The Kennedy Wit edited by Bill Adler, a book published eight months after the assassination. My paperback copy, which I found in an antique store in a Pennsylvania village, was printed in February 1965. Its cover proclaims:


110,000 COPIES IN PRINT AT $3.00. NOW ONLY 60¢!

 Reading this, I could not remember the last time I saw the cent sign. However, written in pencil on the first page was a three, so I paid the proprietor the cost of the original hardcover. That seller, in handing back a couple singles, said, “He was the last good president they produced.” (An inflation calculator tells me that $3 in 1964 equals $25.84 today, so I guess my purchase was still a bargain for an antique book.)

All presidents try to be witty, but in the age of the speechwriter, it is hard to know how much a president should get credit, or blame, for attempts at wit, which too often fall embarrassingly flat. Perhaps we can only gauge their delivery. E.g., Obama had great timing and Reagan told a good story. Both of them, I suspect, were truly witty, as was President Kennedy. JFK delivered droll, often self-deprecatory one-liners with a confident deadpan, and it was fun to read many of them again. Some of them:

“I do not think it entirely inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.”

To the National Industrial Conference Board: “It would be premature to ask your support in the next election and it would be inaccurate to thank you for it in the past.”

“There is no city in the United States in which I get a warmer welcome and less votes than Columbus, Ohio.”

“Politics is an astonishing profession. It has enabled me to go from being an obscure member of the junior varsity at Harvard to being an honorary member of the Football Hall of Fame.”

“Those of you who regard my profession of political life with some disdain should remember that it made it possible for me to move from being an obscure lieutenant in the United States Navy to Commander-in-Chief in fourteen years with very little technical competence.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I was warned to be out of here in plenty of time to permit those who are going to the Green Bay Packers game to leave. I don’t mind running against Mr. Nixon but I have the good sense not run against the Green Bay Packers.”

“We had an interesting convention at Los Angeles, and we ended with a strong Democratic platform which we call ‘The Rights of Man.’ The Republican platform has also been presented. I do not know its title, but it has been referred to as ‘The Power of Positive Thinking.’”

“Last week a noted clergyman was quoted as saying that our society may survive in the event of my election, but it certainly won’t be what it was. I would like to think he was complimenting me, but I’m not sure he was.”

“You remember the very old story about a citizen of Boston who heard a Texan talking about the glories of Bowie, Davy Crockett, and all the rest, and finally said, ‘Haven’t you heard of Paul Revere?’ To which the Texan answered, ‘Well, he is the man who ran for help.’”

Explaining to a little boy how he became a war hero: “It was absolutely involuntary. They sank my boat.”

“When we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.”

“My experience in government is that when things are non-controversial, beautifully coordinated and all the rest, it must be that there is not much going on.”

At the Gridiron dinner before he was elected: “I have just received the following telegram from my generous Daddy. It says, ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’”

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