President Biden last Saturday night cracked jokes about his own age and reelection campaign at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Not a Joke: Humor as Politics,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the power of political comedy, from Seba Smith’s satirical 1830s “Major Jack Downing” character to Dick Gregory’s searing 1960s commentary on racial inequities. Correspondents’ Dinners have long been a particularly ripe ground for often-controversial topical satire. In 1996, an Al Franken-hosted, Clinton-era Correspondents’ Dinner became a particularly tense referendum on partisanship and the moral limits of humor. 

On May 4th, 1996, President Bill Clinton appeared at White House Correspondents’ Dinner at the Washington Hilton alongside Master of Ceremonies Al Franken. 

The stakes were high. Clinton was months away from the 1996 Presidential Election, which already looked to be pitting Clinton against Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Clinton had declared the previous year, but had offered little in terms of formal speechifying about the upcoming contest; some thought the Dinner offered the President an opportunity for a more forthright announcement of his reelection plans. 

Moreover, the previous month’s Radio-Television Correspondents’ Dinner, a normally lower-profile affair than the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, had been a front-page public relations meltdown. 

The host, AM Radio shock jock Don Imus, delivered a staggeringly aggressive set. Imus, with whom Clinton had chatted during his 1992 presidential campaign, was well-known for his off-color jokes about Clinton’s extramarital affairs and other irreverent attacks on politicians’ personal lives. 

During the dinner, however, Imus offered an authentic, no-holds-barred version of his radio show, with many of his targets, including the Clintons, in the room.

Imus made fun of then-Senator Joe Biden’s supposed hair transplant: “Tracking the progress of his plug job was like watching time-lapse photography of a chia pet.” 

He alluded, in decidedly crass terms, to the supposed infidelities of ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and his wife. He made light of an armed mugging suffered by Senator John Kerry’s wife Teresa Heinz. 

He also made a direct cheating-related joke about Clinton, arguing that Clinton’s exclamation of “Go, Baby!” during a visit to a baseball announcing booth was “not the first time he’s said that.” 

On top of all that, Imus threw in jokes about actress Sally Struthers’s weight, Sam Donaldson’s toupee, aging newsman David Brinkley’s wrinkly face, and about two-dozen other ad hominem attacks on the appearance or intelligence of Washington figures. 

The media establishment was aghast. According to the Radio-Television Correspondents’ Association president, MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour producer Kenan Block, Imus had promised to steer clear of President Clinton’s sex life and other sensitive issues. “He said, ‘I can’t tell womanizing jokes about the President with his wife sitting right there,’” Block told the press after Imus’s set. “I felt he knew what the limits were.” 

The Washington Post’s Lloyd Grove put Imus’s tirade in explicitly violent terms: “It was as though he were spraying abuse like a terrorist with an Uzi.” 

Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry even sent a letter to C-SPAN asking the network to refrain from retransmitting the broadcast. 

And Chief of Staff Leon Panetta quipped to the press after Imus finished, “I told you we’re here because we’re masochists.” 

As fall-out from the Imus speech grew, Republicans argued that the media and the Clinton camp was being too sensitive. Conservative consultant Mary Matalin told the media,”The Democrats have proved that they are humor-impaired.” 

Tony Blankley, House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s press secretary, mostly concurred, saying, “I think Imus demonstrated what little appetite Washington has for laughing at itself.” He did throw in the caveat, however, that the cheating joke was over the top: “I think it was the consensus – and I would agree – that references in the presence of the First Lady to certain matters were starkly inappropriate.”

Still, Imus loomed large as Washington geared up for another comedy-centric dinner. Franken was a marked contrast to Imus. He was an avowed Democrat, had hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner once before, and had just published a book skewering most of Clinton’s main political enemies on the right. The book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, had shot to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The crowd included a fair sprinkling of the Hollywood elite: actor Kevin Costner (fresh off of Waterworld), director Oliver Stone (fresh off of Nixon), and X-Files star Gillian Anderson all received particular press attention. 

In his remarks, Clinton quickly acknowledged the comparative chumminess he had with Franken, while getting in a barb about Franken’s starring role in the much-maligned therapy comedy Stuart Saves His Family: “I feel a certain kinship with Al Franken. We, frankly, had a terrible 1994. I had Speaker Gingrich’s victory in the midterm elections, and he had Stuart Saves His Family.”

He also got in some zingers against Dole, making fun of the media’s increasing reliance on focus groups in the process: “Suppose you were too busy shaking hands tonight, and you didn’t get to eat and you go home at night and you decide to order a pizza. Who do you trust to select the toppings, Bob Dole or Bill Clinton?” And Clinton found a way of skirting the long-awaited politicized reelection campaign speech while offering some light, non-Imus-style self-criticism. 

Two months earlier, Clinton, while sitting on Air Force One on the way back from a trip to Israel, had chatted with reporters for three hours. He discussed the Bible, the NCAA Basketball tournament, and the peach cobbler served on the plane. 

After the extended conversation, McCurry, the press secretary, had asked reporters to keep the conversation on “psych background,” meaning that they could use the quotes to help contextualize Clinton’s perspective, but could not directly attribute anything to the President. The new designation had led to much press teasing, and Clinton incorporated the backlash into his non-campaign speech: 

“In lieu of a formal announcement speech, you can report on ‘psych-background’ that Bill Clinton is under the strong impression that America is a great country, and that we are living in an age of possibility,” Clinton said to much applause. “Bill Clinton suspects that America is moving in the right direction, but we have to keep working together to find common ground. Bill Clinton is inclined to think he can help us meet America’s challenges with just one more term.”

While Clinton avoided direct mention of Imus, Franken – who was also present at the Imus imbroglio –  wasted no time in addressing the elephant in the room.  “The last time I was in the room, actually, was a little over a month ago for the Radio-TV Correspondents’ Dinner,” Franken began. “And actually, during the evening I came up with the title to my next book: Don Imus is a Big Putz.”

Franken was also self-aware about the restrictions on his content in the post-Imus world. He joked, “I am not to do any jokes about the President’s personal life except his eating habits.” He also promised to steer clear of joshing about “Newt Gingrich’s first wife, Bob Dole’s first wife, Phil Gramm’s first wife, Dick Armey’s first wife, Rush Limbaugh’s first wife, Rush Limbaugh’s second wife, Rush Limbaugh’s third wife.” 

He went on to offer a very politically-incorrect imitation of how Imus would have characterized President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had lost the use of his legs after suffering polio. “My impression of Don Imus at the 1944 Radio Correspondents’ Dinner: ‘For those of you listening on radio, the President is a cripple.’” 

And Franken offered a more critical post-mortem on the debacle while throwing further shade at Gingrich: “I guess what Imus was trying to do was to demonstrate his shock jock bona fides by showing that he was willing to speak in front of 3,000 people and offend pretty much everyone,” he began. “That is not my goal tonight. Let me let you in on my goal. If at the end of this evening the Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich walks out of this hotel thinking, ‘You know, that Al Franken is a pretty funny guy,’ then I know I will have failed miserably and let a lot of people down.”  

Despite all of his assurances that he was not entering Imus territory, however, Franken still got into hot water for a further off-color barb at Gingrich, concerning the Speaker’s vociferous opposition to placing women in military combat positions: “You remember that Newt said, and I quote, `If combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in that ditch for 30 days because they’d get infections.’ Now I read this and the image that immediately came to mind is of Newt about 15 years ago, explaining to his 13-year-old daughter that she had just gotten her first infection.”

Ironically, Tony Blankely, the same Gingrich spokesman who said that Democrats were overreacting to Imus, was particularly perturbed by the joke. “Everything else is fair game, but talking about your daughter is beyond the pale,” he told the press after Franken’s remarks. 

By the time the dinner ended however, Gingrich had measured praise for Franken’s set, saying,“It was not as grotesquely obscene as Imus.”

The coziness of the Franken-led event led some pundits to argue that the evening had become obnoxiously self-congratulatory. Washington Post reporter William Powers wrote a lengthy and cynical write-up on the affair, arguing, “Everyone is so busy with mutual gawking, serious flirtation, outright sucking up and much, much other life-enhancing fun that some don’t even notice the President and First Lady are late.”

He also suggested that the carefulness of the speeches highlighted the political slant of the press corps: “When the president happens to be a Democrat, there’s a special coziness, because, well, you know about the secret political inclinations of most correspondents.” 

Of the flap with Franken’s Gingrich joke, Powers asserted, “Perhaps now every dinner will have its own de rigueur moment of insult, followed by hours and days of dissection.” He argued, however, that the back-and-forth was ultimately empty: “What does it all mean? Oh very little…” 

Almost thirty years on, however, the ferocity of Imus’s speech – and of portions of Franken’s – appear as a sort of inflection point: a recognition that the ad hominem, no-holds-barred humor of the 1990s was potentially legitimately damaging and cruel. 

Sure enough, within months of the dinners, a bevy of political columns attempted to make sense of the mainstream comedic acceptance of nasty jokes. In August, citing Imus and Franken, Dallas Morning News columnist Ed Bark wrote a column, “Political Humor Hits…Below the Belt,” in which he asked: “Are today’s comedians less filling, more infantile? Or are they merely in sync with cynical times that demand a crass course in political humor? Can an avalanche of barbed one-liners affect an election or trivialize it to the point of absurdity?” 

Times have obviously changed, and the jokes at this year’s Correspondents’ Dinner were decidedly more demure than in 1996. The negotiation of humor’s sharp edges as a political cudgel, and the impact of comedy on the larger fates and furies of Washington, however, remains center stage. 

For more on the unique political and cultural climate of the Clinton era, check out David Friend’s 2017 Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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