The office of the United States President is a serious job. The President has to lead the nation, broker deals with other countries, and make daily life-or-death decisions that could affect millions. You wouldn’t think you’d be taking humor cues from the most serious men in history, but as these stories show, many former presidents are actually quite the hilarious, mischievous little pranksters…
Humor is hard to find in the early history of the United States. Presidential personalities are remembered in history for being pretty serious, even grim. But the first account of joking around in the White House came not from a president, but at his expense. John Quincy Adams was known to take a daily bath in Washington, D.C.’s Potomac River. One day, Anne Royall – considered to be the first female journalist in America – secured an interview with Adams by stealing his clothes while he was bathing. But his successor was the one making the jokes.
Andrew Jackson’s presidency was a stark contrast to some of his predecessors. Unlike other presidents who were Ivy-league educated, Jackson had a much less formal education. His humor was also less sophisticated. He was basically a prototype punk rocker. Once, he got drunk and proceeded to smash all the dinner plates at a local tavern. He then found it funny to light the table on fire. Later, he was tasked with organizing a Christmas party, and decided to invite a group of local prostitutes. The elite members of society in attendance were highly offended and the prostitutes were humiliated. A later president wielded his humor more elegantly.
Abraham Lincoln was a famously tall and slender president, whose sense of humor was also larger than life and razor sharp. He often made self-deprecating jokes. Once, he was accused of being two-faced. In response, he asked, “honestly, if I were two-faced, would I be showing you this one?” Lincoln was also a witty debate opponent. He mimicked an opponent’s voice and mannerisms to the point of squarely winning the debate and reducing the opponent to tears of shame. But sometimes White House jokes come from the first family.
Teddy Roosevelt was an advocate of the “Strenuous Life,” which extolled hard work and exercise. Humor wasn’t a priority for his administration, but two of his children were notorious tricksters. Sons Archie and Quentin were known to put snakes in congressmen’s pockets and, in defiance of their conservationist father, they smuggled a Christmas tree into the White House. It would take a few more administrations until we had a comedian in the office, although he was an unconventional one.
Calvin Coolidge went down in history as one of the most reserved and quiet politicians ever to grace our nation’s capital. His idea of humor was to summon his aides and Secret Service staff then hide for hours, hoping that they would think he was abducted. He was famously media-shy and earned the nickname, “Silent Cal.” He reportedly went many days without speaking to anyone. But later presidents would have to embrace a growing media presence in American life.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, our longest-serving President, led the nation through the Great Depression and most of World War II. During his terms, American culture was changed forever by the explosion of radio and TV. He was one of the biggest presidential pranksters. He would order his Secret Service detail to climb up on a roof, then he’d remove the ladder, leaving them stranded and him chuckling. Outside of the White House, he once crank-called NBC, pretending to be an advertising manager for a laxative company. His successor continued his wacky ways.
One of Harry Truman’s cabinet members was ardently against needles and vaccination. Knowing this, Truman ordered the man to be vaccinated for an upcoming trip to South America. When the man resisted, Truman said it was mandatory and ordered him to meet with the White House physician. The doctor told the man to drop his drawers as the vaccine would be injected into his derriere. The doctor showed him a horse-sized needle, then left the room. The next thing the man heard was Truman’s voice joking, “ready for your shot?” Other presidents also staged elaborate pranks outside of the White House.
Before his election, Dwight Eisenhower was an honored general. Earlier in his military career, “Ike” decided to teach a lesson to some new recruits. During some training exercises, he orchestrated a full-on assault by Native American tribes to give the newbies a taste of the west, and he almost started a war in the process. He went as far as replacing bullets with blanks and staged false fronts. The prank was over when the inexperienced sentry fired his blank-loaded shotgun. But nothing tops the next presidential pranks.
John F. Kennedy’s youthful leadership energized a nation during the early sixties. He was one of the first telegenic presidents who attracted celebrity friendships. A friend of his once bragged that he was dating Greta Garbo, the famous actress. Behind the friend’s back, Kennedy arranged for a luncheon with himself, the friend and Ms. Garbo. He asked Garbo to pretend to not know who the friend was, humiliating the friend, who actually had a good sense of humor about the prank. JFK’s wit went far back to when he was a student.
During high school in the 1930s, John F. Kennedy was a brutal prankster. He started an unofficial group, The Mucksters, who planned out elaborate punks against the school. He planned to shovel manure in the gymnasium – which was thwarted – and is rumored to have set fireworks off in the plumbing, causing great havoc. Kennedy’s life was cut tragically short, so we, unfortunately, can only guess as to what other humor he’d lend to our nation’s history. His vice president, however, would use some interesting tactics to get a laugh.
Lyndon B. Johnson would often head to his Texas ranch as a retreat from Washington. While there he would entertain guests. Part of his routine for welcoming new visitors was to take them for a drive in his convertible. He’d drive them towards the property’s lake, coming down a steep embankment. He’d go into a panic claiming that the brakes were not working. Sometimes his passengers would leap from the car. But at the last minute, he’d crash the car right into the water and everyone would realize that the convertible was actually an “amphicar” – a combination car and boat. Other presidents were less the jokesters and more part of the joke.
Nixon is most famous for his disgraceful resignation from office. In 1992, an announcement was made by “Richard Nixon” that he would be running for president that year. His motto was going to be “I never did anything wrong and I won’t do it again.” It took a short while to see that it was an April Fool’s Day prank by Nixon impressionist Rich Hall and NPR’s John Hockenberry. But Nixon’s successor became a master at being mocked.
Gerald Ford was often mocked by comedians in the 1970s as being clumsy. On Saturday Night Live, comedian Chevy Chase would ape Ford by falling down stairs and tripping over everything. Ford was a good sport about it, and even paid some of the humor back to Chase at a White House dinner. He reportedly made fun of himself by pulling a tablecloth off a table and spilling papers all over the comedian. He also gave a presentation called “Humor and The Presidency” through his presidential library. But a few administrations later, we saw an actual comedic actor in the Oval Office.
Ronald Reagan’s comedic chops would almost start World War III. In 1984, Reagan was doing his sound-check for a weekly radio address on NPR. While rehearsing, he announced that he had signed an executive order outlawing Russia and that the bombs were being dropped in five minutes. The soundcheck was never broadcast, but news of the speech made its way to the Soviet Union. For 30 minutes, the Soviet Army was mobilizing defensively to brace for an attack. Reagan’s VP also showed a twisted sense of humor.
George H. W. Bush has an odd and elaborate sense of humor. It was reported that his wife found some images of scantily-clad women on a printer in their Maine home. Apparently, these were printed by one of the Bush grandchildren. Mrs. Bush was very angry, and the ex-President decided to orchestrate some fun at her expense. Bush senior drafted a counterfeit letter from the Maine Attorney General claiming that porn was detected on Mrs. Bush’s computer, and he had her open the letter in front of company. The next president took pranks to another level.
During the bulk of his presidency, Bill Clinton was not a notorious jokester. But his staff created some of the craziest frat-house inspired punks and pranks ever to go down in the White House. During the transition period from Clinton to his successor, George W. Bush, a litany of tricks and pranks were pulled, including $15,000 in damage, an official inquiry by the Government Accountability Office, and a 220-page report about the shenanigans. The most brutal prank? Physically removing the “W” key from all of the White House’s keyboards in a direct shot at the incoming president’s nickname “W.” The next president would save his humor for later.
George W. Bush’s administration faced some very serious problems, and the only humor was usually at his expense due to his frequent verbal gaffes. But he definitely exhibited a great sense of humor later in his life. Recently, “W” poked fun at himself on late-night TV, laughing about his made-up words “strategery” and “misunderestimated”. He noted that “the best humor is when you laugh at yourself.” His successor would also exhibit a good-natured sense of humor.
Barack Obama showed off a keen sense of humor and comedic timing during his two terms as president. He is an engaging speaker, but he also knew when to call in professionals to help him with jokes. He actually had joke writers on staff in the West Wing. But when it came to the transition pranks that got Clinton in trouble, Obama chose the high road. He reportedly released a memo to his staff at the end of his terms, explicitly prohibiting any pranking of the incoming administration, whoever that might be. That was probably a good decision because the current president’s sense of humor is somewhat unknown.
So far, there have been no reports of comedic pranks in the Trump White House. Likely, the administration is quite busy, having just finished its first year. Trump does, however, have comedy in his background, with cameos in films such as Home Alone 2 and Zoolander, and by starring in many seasons of his reality show, The Apprentice. And while his TV show was not a comedy per se, there were comedic elements where Trump displayed his humor. But after looking at the comedic history of the U.S. Presidency, it seems that a non-presidential founding father may have been the most mischievous.
Benjamin Franklin never held the office of the president, but he was a central figure in the founding of this nation. Many know of his contributions to America, but few are aware of his satirical sense of humor. He was such a jokester that the Continental Congress assigned writing the Declaration of Independence to Thomas Jefferson because they were afraid that Franklin would add jokes. And long before The Onion, Franklin wrote fake news pieces to garner laughs and sympathy for the revolutionary cause. He also purportedly invented daylight savings time, by satirically suggesting that millions of tons of candlewax could be saved in France if they woke up with the sun. He further suggested that France wake everyone up with cannon fire each morning. In the serious business of founding and leading a nation, it seems that humor has always held a position in America.