A study in presidential likeability and having a sense of humor

Feb 8, 2019

President Ronald Reagan with the Sand Diego chicken
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Presidential historian and author H.W. Brands was guest of Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

His presentation Comedian-in-Chief: What Presidents' Humor Says About Them, and About Us begins with the seriousness of President George Washington to President Donald Trump.

“The president doesn’t really have to generate humor until we get into the 20th Century when the president becomes this celebrity figure in American politics that he is today. And once you get into first the radio and especially the television age then the ability of a president to stand and deliver and make people laugh becomes more important. And it’s not, it’s not surprising that Reagan who is sort of the first really successful president on television is the one who pioneers in this regard.”

I asked H.W. Brands how important it is to have a sense of humor looking at it from two different perspectives. First, popularity among voters when likeability and polling matters and secondly, when negotiating with an adversary or ally?

“Likeability is an almost essential factor in any successful run for the presidency and it continues after you’re president. If people like you, you have a much better chance of your agenda and programs succeeding. I draw the comparison between Richard Nixon when he got tangled up in the Watergate scandal and Ronald Reagan when he ran afoul of Iran-Contra. Viewed from constitutional and even legal perspective Iran-Contra was probably more serious than Watergate. Watergate was an internal, domestic affair whereas Iran-Contra dealt with America’s global position. Richard Nixon was forced from office. Ronald Reagan was not. He skated on Iran-Contra and one of the reasons was that Ronald Reagan was perceived as likeable in a way that Richard Nixon was not. I’m not going to chalk that up entirely to his ability to tell a joke but likeability is really important. Although, with the current president we’re seeing something different because Donald Trump was not elected because he was likeable, in this case that wasn’t a critical element of the successful package. I’m not going to say we’re going full-circle back to George Washington, but the persona and the position that President Trump has staked out is actually quite different from presidents during the last say, 50-years. So, it remains to be seen whether this is a permanent change or an anomaly. As an observer of the presidency we won’t know until November of 2020.”