Jokers-in-Chief: Punch Lines From Six Decades of White House Correspondents’ Dinners

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Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The annual gathering of journalists and politicians — which will take place tomorrow — has evolved since its inception in 1921 into a celebrity-studded roast of the sitting president. Comedians from Richard Pryor to Jay Leno (four times) have performed routines that ranged from the gentle to the razor-sharp (like Stephen Colbert, in character, insisting that George W. Bush’s “soaring” White House was not like the Titanic but the Hindenburg). At least since JFK’s dinners, presidents have fished for laughs of their own, often deflecting criticism by getting in on the joke. The dinner’s most memorable lines add up to an ad hoc presidential-history cheat sheet. 

1962: John F. Kennedy
“I have been, during the last few days over the Easter holidays, back in touch with my constituents and seeing how they felt. And, frankly, I’ve
come back to Washington from Palm Beach, and I’m against my entire program! I really feel that the only hope in ’64 is to nominate Barry!
But to be honest, I thought that before I went to Palm Beach.”

1968: Lyndon B. Johnson
“On March 31, I clearly said, in very measured words, ‘I will not seek, and I shall not accept, the nomination of my party.’ I repeat—my party! And ever since that night, I have been waiting for Everett Dirksen to drop by.” [Dirksen, a Republican senator, had been a key Johnson ally on the passage of the Civil Rights Act]

1973: Richard Nixon
“It is a privilege to be here at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. I suppose I should say it is an executive privilege.”

1974: Gerald Ford
“Remove my worst foot from where I put it and please replace it with unintelligible, inaudible, or, if you must, expletive deleted.” [President Nixon, reeling from the Watergate tapes’ release, was absent]

1975: Gerald Ford
“I do have one favor to ask of all the White House correspondents sitting here tonight. Every few years, we do have to paint the White House. It is done for reasons of maintenance, aesthetics, and appearance. So please, would you just refer to this as a paint job, not a cover-up?”

1977: Jimmy Carter
“I’ve had a lot of setbacks and a lot of troubles, as you know, and you’ve been kind enough to make those clear.”

1979: Jimmy Carter
“Only some great world crisis could have kept me from coming here this evening. As a matter of fact, [National Security Adviser] Dr. Brzezinski almost got fired this afternoon because he couldn’t find one.” [After skipping the previous year’s dinner]

1980: Jody Powell
White House press secretary

“I walked into the Oval Office. I didn’t pussyfoot around. I didn’t mince words. I looked the leader of the free world straight in those steely-blue eyes, and I said, ‘Rosalynn, make Jimmy do it.’”

1981: Ronald Reagan
“I hope you don’t mind, but [budget director] David Stockman is making me call collect.” [On the phone from Camp David, where he was recuperating after John Hinckley Jr.’s failed assassination attempt]

1985: Mort Sahl
“[Norman Lear] said, ‘Will you help me with Reverend [Jesse] Jackson’s campaign?’ I said, ‘I’ve been out of town—is that the black man?’ He said, ‘To
tell you the truth, Mort, I haven’t noticed.’ That’s the ultimate liberal.”

1991: George H.W. Bush
“I used to love to go to the supermarket, reading those tabloids as I stood in the checkout line. But it’s not all bad. I can still read the New York Times.

1993: Elayne Boosler
“Thank God that we have an administration that believes in sex education … Bush was so interesting to me. He was against abortion but for capital
punishment. Spoken like a true fisherman: Throw ’em back, kill ’em when they’re bigger.”

1994: Bill Clinton
“For The Wall Street Journal to criticize my wife for making money trading commodities is like Field and Stream criticizing someone for catching a fish.”

1995: Conan O’Brien
“I am very honored to be a part of this event tonight. When I got the invitation, I was thrilled that I would be speaking in the same room with the most powerful man in the country. Well, then I heard Judge Ito canceled.”

1997: Norm MacDonald
“It was very inspiring to see President Clinton up here on crutches making a speech. I thought that was just amazing … He can’t jog now, and he needs help getting around, and he still occasionally suffers great pain. On the upside, you got your medical marijuana. So, you know? You must inhale, sir! It’s the only way you’re going to get better!”

2000: Jay Leno
“Andrea Mitchell dated Alan Greenspan for 12 years before she married him. You see, some people do anything to get a story. Ladies and gentlemen, that is a reporter. What is home like for them, you know? When he wakes up in a bad mood, does she run to the phone, call her broker, and ‘Look, sell, just sell everything, damn it! I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with him’?”

2001: George W. Bush
“This is my actual first-grade report card. Up top, it says, ‘George W. Bush.’ And then notice the final grades on the right: writing, A; reading, A; spelling, A; arithmetic, A; music, A; art, A. So my advice is, don’t peak too early.”

2005: Laura Bush
“George didn’t know much about ranches when we bought the place — Andover and Yale don’t have a real strong ranching program … He’s learned a lot about ranching since that first year when he tried to milk the horse … It was a male horse.”

2009: Barack Obama
“I’d like to talk a little bit about what my administration plans to achieve in the next hundred days. During the second hundred days, we will design, build, and open a library dedicated to my first hundred days. It’s going to be big, folks … I believe that my next hundred days will be so successful I will be able to complete them in 72 days.  And on the 73rd day, I will rest.”

2011: Seth Meyers
Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke. 

2013: Barack Obama
“These days I look in the mirror and I have to admit I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be.”

*This article appears in the May 5, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.