Gerald’s Great Fall: Satire and Presidential Approachability

“I can see Russia from my house!” A decade later, this iconic line by Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin during the 2008 Presidential race might be the only thing some people remember about Senator Palin. Some still misattribute this quote to her rather than Tina Fey [1]. She is not the only political figure to be impersonated by any means, and the parody of politicians is a story as old as politics itself. While seemingly counterintuitive, participating in satire and laughing at themselves even, can help a president’s approachability.

Following the tumultuous events of Watergate, newly-minted President Ford was highly cautious in how he projected himself to the country. This all changed around a year later. In 1975, when President Gerald Ford took a tumble on the steps of Air Force One, it was more than a fall [2]. Chevy Chase turned this moment into a recurring joke on Saturday Night Live. Ford eventually embraced this skit and he ended up doing a cameo for SNL and even invited Chase to perform at a White House dinner. “That type of reaction became a benchmark of what would come to be an essential presidential image-making skill: an ability to laugh at oneself.” [3].  But was the self-deprecating politician really a new phenomenon? 

Politics and comedy were intertwined in France with almost every king [4]. In France, Molière and other writers wrote about kings from Louis XIV and his court in a jovial yet critical way. This put the king in a tight spot. If he were to publicly retaliate against these comedians and deny the accusations, it would reinforce the criticism. On the other hand, if he chose to take the mockery in silence, he risked losing the respect of his constituents. As most rulers chose to let it slide, perhaps Ford was taking the example of kings.

Though the form has shifted over time, satire remains just as important today as it did in the courts of Louis XIV. For those that appear to be distant from the public, like presidents and other heads of state, engaging in the comedy scene can help them look more congenial and approachable. In presidential races, it can help lesser-known candidates, like Pete Buttigieg’s appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, gain name recognition [5].  

While notoriously thin-skinned in his presidential role, Trump himself recently participated in the late-night comedy scene. In 2015, he hosted SNL, with the opening monologue consisting of him standing on stage while two cast members impersonated him [6].When the utility of the show wore off, Trump began to decry this same comedy show he had used as a political tool a year earlier [7]. This bemoaning of satire and impersonations continues today. For example, Trump has not attended any of the White House Correspondents Dinners, which connect the White House and the press, since he claims them to be “so boring and so negative” [8]. In reality, it could be his presidential sensitivity to any type of criticism. Trump’s presidency has broken the mold in more ways than one, but this level of blatant criticism of political satire (at his expense) has not been seen since the days of Nixon.

Though political satire is not without unintended (or often pointed) consequences, satire is necessary to keep the political elites in check. Whether a tumble down the steps of Air Force One or anything else, it is in the president’s interest to roll with the punches and laugh along with the crowds. 

[1] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sarah-palin-russia-joke_n_584e3fe1e4b0e05aded4724f

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/29/washington/29chevy.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/29/washington/29chevy.html

[4] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/01/why-satire-holy-french-islam-2015113124829607350.html

[5] http://www.cc.com/video-clips/r0t70l/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-pete-buttigieg—-shortest-way-home–and-his-2020-white-house-bid—extended-interview

[6] https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/donald-trump-monologue/2933530

[7] https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/17/opinions/snl-trump-emergency-declaration-obeidallah/index.html[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2019/04/05/president-trump-wont-attend-boring-negative-white-house-correspondents-dinner/

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Hailey Hannigan

HAILEY HANNIGAN is a senior from popular tourist destination, Salt Lake City, Utah. Recently Hailey returned from an internship in Scotland with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of British crisps. As much as she loves her country, her passion lies in European politics and she’s still debating whether to follow her 4th grade dream of becoming an expatriate. She hopes to pursue a masters in Public Policy abroad (or something fun like that).

Hailey Hannigan

HAILEY HANNIGAN is a senior from popular tourist destination, Salt Lake City, Utah. Recently Hailey returned from an internship in Scotland with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of British crisps. As much as she loves her country, her passion lies in European politics and she’s still debating whether to follow her 4th grade dream of becoming an expatriate. She hopes to pursue a masters in Public Policy abroad (or something fun like that).

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