Nation's comics are giving Clinton no honeymoon

February 04, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Washington -- The sex jokes paved the way.

One Republican campaign button said, "Smile if you had an affair with Bill Clinton."

A story about politicians and the Wizard of Oz had George Bush asking for a heart, Dan Quayle for a brain, Ross Perot for courage, and Bill Clinton saying, "Oh, I'm just here to see Dorothy."

The wise-crackers of America were on a roll, and it never stopped. From the day Gennifer Flowers claimed she was Clinton's lover to this moment in his new administration, few politicians-turned-president have experienced such a steady rattle of ridicule as Bill Clinton.

Last November, within hours of Clinton's most exalted political triumph, syndicated humor writer Dave Barry already was talking about "the failed Clinton administration."

In the week before the inauguration, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno said, "Say what you want about Bush. At least he waited until after he was in office to break his campaign promises . . .

"If you're a gay middle-class Haitian trying to get into the Army, you've got to be pretty mad right now."

A Washington satirical troupe, the Capitol Steps, started doing a song, inspired by Clinton favorite Judy Collins, that includes the line, "I've taken stands on both sides now."

And just a week after the inaugural, David Letterman offered the top 10 signs that Clinton's presidential honeymoon already was over. Among them:

* "Israelis and Arabs agree: He's fat."

* "His mom keeps asking him why he can't be more like his brother, Roger."

* And, "When he has to go out in public, the Secret Service says, 'You're on your own, Pedro.'"

As always, the vultures of the comedy business have followed almost immediately behind the predators of the press.

As Washington comedy producer John Simmons says, "What you guys print, we make fun of."

"Gennifer Flowers rumors got us through the spring," says Elaina Newport of Capitol Steps, "then the draft through the summer, and McDonald's through the fall."

Late in the year, Mr. Leno tried this multi-purpose crack: "If McDonald's had been allowed to open in Vietnam 22 years ago, Clinton might have gone after all."

Since then, Mr. Leno has maintained a steady stream of fat jokes interspersed with failed-principle jokes.

Political humor is defined by its contempt for power and its alertness for fault and weakness, and that might explain some statistics assembled by a Washington research organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, that keeps track of political jokes in the monologues of the major late-night TV people.

During 1992, as George Bush was losing public support and ultimately his job, the center counted 608 Bush jokes by Mr. Letterman, Mr. Leno and Arsenio Hall, compared to 423 about Mr. Clinton.

Typical of the Bush humor was this from Mr. Letterman: "Secretly, pollsters believe that Bush is down to only eight points of light." And this from Leno: "Bush is being accused of manufacturing the crisis with Iraq. If this is true, it's the first manufacturing job he's brought to America in years."

At the same time, "Saturday Night Live" comedian Dana Carvey was becoming a major-league TV star with his sappy Bush imitation.

Now the focus has shifted from Mr. Carvey to Clinton mimic Phil Hartman, he of the throaty southern croon and blow-dry wig. The mind of American comedy clearly is riveted on the new president.

In January, the Center for Media and Public Affairs counted 42 Clinton jokes on the late-night shows, a pace that would take him to 504 by the end of the year, and he wasn't even in office the first 19 days.

Anyone near him is in the cross-hairs.

Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, is described as "quite life-like."

Though some comedians, on principle, won't talk about 12-year-old First Daughter, Chelsea, she isn't totally spared. Mr. Letterman recently said she had written a fairy tale entitled, "The little princess who wasn't exactly Miss Popularity, but then her dad got elected president and she used the CIA to get back at every little creep who ever made fun of her."

And then there's Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most interesting comedy subject of them all.

In a doctored photograph, this month's Spy magazine cover portrays her as a sexual dominatrix in silver-studded black leather lingerie, matching head-band and fishnet stockings. The cover blurb asks: "WHAT Hillary Problem?"

But despite the Spy cover, if anyone comes off well in this wash of fun-making, it is Hillary. She often is portrayed as the only strong figure in the White House. For instance:

Bill and Hillary are driving in Arkansas when they pass a gas station. Hillary says she once dated the attendant. "Just think," says Bill, "if you'd married him, you'd be a pump jockey's wife." "No," says Hillary, "if I'd married him, HE'D be president."

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