In one of our comment sections, we have been discussing presidential wit. A witty response can defuse an awkward situation, and my point was that Donald Trump does not seem to possess that particular capability. Of course, we don’t elect the Comedian-In-Chief, so that doesn’t necessarily disqualify someone from our highest office.

I’ve personally seen witty responses from Harry Truman, JFK, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. FDR was not known for witty repartee. Nor was Ike. The funniest thing Eisenhower said was, as he was leaving office, in a response to a reporter’s question about what important contributions candidate Richard Nixon made during Eisenhower’s presidency. Ike said something like, “give me a week and I’ll think of something.”

Nixon, himself was not really a funny man. That’s surprising since the nastiest men are often the quickest with a joke. Ford had a reputation for being dull-witted, but that’s probably not fair. Carter was too self-righteous. The funniest thing I remember Carter saying was when he was asked if he had had illicit affairs. No, he said, but that he lusted for women in his heart. His point was that he doesn’t judge others, but it came off as naïve, and the media had a field day with it.

LBJ and GHW Bush both suffered from following truly clever and witty presidents. Clinton seemed too calculating about what he might say, so he didn’t seem witty. We remember his making the ridiculous claim that, yes he smoked pot, but didn’t inhale. That made him the butt (or roach) of jokes for years. George Bush (43) has been known for jokes after his presidency but was not known for his wit in the White House. Part of it was the need to be serious during crises.

If you’re looking for the wit and wisdom of Donald Trump, you can buy the paperback of that title which is sold on Amazon. However, the book, itself, is a joke, since the book is really a bound note pad of blank pages.

The BBC interviewed Anthony Scaramucci, who suggested that Trump’s tweet about the size of his nuclear button showed the level of Trump’s wit. Oh, yeah, that’s a side-splitter. About as witty as the “reset button” Hillary Clinton took to Moscow. And both buttons are “funny” for the wrong reason.

If you Google “Trump wit,” you’ll get this article from the Washington Post which sounds gushing and praising—until you realize it’s pure irony.

Another bit of Trump humor is that if you Google the word “idiot,” and then click on “images,” most of the images are Trump, defining the word.

The Guardian explains that was accomplished by rascals gaming the system.

Trump is not an idiot, of course, or even an “f-ing idiot,” as John Kelly reportedly opined, according to the Military Times. Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson recently said that Trump is a “moron.” More surprising is the fact that Rupert Murdoch referred to Trump as a “f-ing idiot,” according to the Guardian. Remember that Murdoch is the owner of Fox News, which is Trump’s broadcast megaphone.

They are all are wrong, of course. No idiot could get what he wants as often as Trump does, and when he doesn’t get what he wants, he redefines the situation and claims success, anyway—most recently when he said that the Blue Wave that flooded the House of Representatives in November was a victory for him.

The thing is, people don’t joke about things they don’t believe. If someone is really even-handed in his or her humor, it probably shows that that person does not have strong feelings or firm beliefs in that area. For the same reason, we find things funny if we agree with them. That’s why liberal comedians can get away with saying some pretty nasty things about Trump. That’s what their audience wants.

Several years ago, this writer attended a show featuring Lily Tomlin. At one point, she said she’d like to try out some new material and would like the audience’s response. The jokes were mostly roasting George Bush (who was president at that time). It was instructive to hear the responses. There was laughter, of course, but also, instead of laughter, there was applause—from those who didn’t think the joke was funny, but liked hearing Bush being slammed. Some sat quietly. Others squirmed. But there were also boos. Tomlin couldn’t understand how a joke could get a boo. She asked what was wrong. She didn’t understand that Bush partisans would be offended by a joke she found funny.

And that is why Trump fans think he’s funny, too, as noted in a story in Politico.

Trump’s brand of humor — cutting, insulting and sometimes even downright mean — has long offended and shocked the president’s critics. But for his supporters and allies, Trump’s irreverent jokes, which have become a central part of his increasingly frequent rallies across the country, are a feature, not a bug. . .

A group of people waiting in line for Trump’s speech recounted the president’s recent mockery of Stormy Daniels. “What did he call her? Horseface?”. . .burst out laughing. . .

Trump’s advisers say the president’s crass sense of humor is at the core of his appeal to a conservative base that has rejected political correctness. . .

David Litt, a former Obama speechwriter [said]. . .“He weaponizes what he would call jokes to an unprecedented extent,” Litt said. “All of the examples of him telling a joke are also examples of him being a bully.”

Litt added that the laughter at Trump’s rallies “is about solidifying a tribal identity at the expense of someone else. It’s laughter in agreement rather than laughter because something is funny.”

As with my earlier comment on Lily Tomlin, Trump’s supporters don’t laugh and cheer because he’s funny. They are just elated to hear attacks on people they don’t like.

However, the Politico writer was able to find two examples of actual humor from Trump.

He pointed to a joke Trump made about the large number of Nebraskans who attended Trump’s rally in Iowa last week. After the crowd cheered more loudly when he mentioned Nebraska than they did when he mentioned Iowa, Trump quipped, “I didn’t know you were bringing half of Nebraska.”

Ok, it’s not Seinfeld quality, but this one is:

“I never had alcohol, for whatever reason,” Trump said earlier this month. “Can you imagine if I had? What a mess I would be. I would be the world’s worst.”

That’s the only self-effacing humor I’ve heard from Trump, who is usually most interested in plastering and burnishing his image. The Politico article notes that Trump almost never laughs, and does not joke out of public view. He doesn’t seem like a happy person, just one who is self-satisfied.

The article also points to Trump’s recent UN appearance. Trump claimed that he had accomplished more than anyone, ever. The audience shuffled uncomfortably since they didn’t agree. Trump then said, “that’s not the response I expected, but ok.” The UN members then laughed. Reports in the media were that the UN laughed “at” Trump. That’s not really fair. Yes, listeners thought his claims of success were ludicrous, but they didn’t laugh until he acknowledged their disagreement. Their laughter was partly an opportunity to relieve the awkwardness of their disagreement, but—as he later claimed—that they were laughing “with him,” in the sense that he, too, was acknowledging the awkwardness.

However, the Politico article notes more classic humor, in a comment Obama made at the Correspondents’ Dinner: “I look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be.” Another time, Obama joked about Hillary’s 2008 campaign ad, saying only she had the experience to handle a crisis call at 3 am. Obama joked that after 8 years in the job, he’s aged so much that he’d already been up at 3am—because he has to go to the bathroom.

Only two other presidents in my lifetime qualify as witty and clever. JFK was best at using self-effacing humor to deflect an awkward question. When first elected, the press questioned his naming his young brother, Bobby, as Attorney General. JFK’s response was that he felt that Bobby needed some experience before going into private practice. It was an outrageous joke, but it showed that he acknowledged that Bobby was inexperienced, but that he had faith in him. Along the same lines, someone asked if naming Bobby wasn’t nepotism, to which JFK responded, “I don’t think so, and neither does my brother, Teddy.”

We saw the same quality in Ronald Reagan. During his second campaign, there were questions about Reagan’s fitness at the age of almost 75. During a debate, Reagan acknowledged the issue, and promised that he wouldn’t use Walter Mondale’s youth against him. That clever comment made him appear on-the-ball and capable, defusing the issue. In another quip, Reagan said, “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency – even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.” A lesser man would be afraid to open himself up to a charge that he napped like an old man.

Humor is in the ear of the beholder, but it’s not really humor if it’s mean spirited attack, as the many comedians who harshly ridicule Trump—and Trump, when he mocks the handicapped and others he sees as a questioner—a doubter—an enemy.


  1. Trump says things like: “Yeah, Jeb you’re really tough.” Or “Melania gave the exact same speech as Michelle but…”

    His humor doesn’t stand out like Reagan’s did. Obama was a real comedian.

    • That was my point. Some presidents could respond with a quick witty comment. Trump can’t do it. The “Jeb” comment sounds real middle-school to me. If Democrats found someone who could think on his feet, Trump would be in trouble.

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