Clinton, rolling with the punches and stayin' alive

March 25, 1998|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- "When they start laughing at you, you're through." Tell Kenneth W. Starr that President Clinton has broken another political law.

One mystery of the endless sex scandal is how Mr. Clinton stays illogically afloat despite a disparaging storm of risque jokes.

I mean, former Vice President Dan Quayle was doomed by gags about his intelligence and misspelling of potato. You didn't need polls to tell presidential candidate Bob Dole he would lose when late-night comics began ridiculing his age.

Sure, there have always been sexual gags about presidents. But they were limited to male-only guffaws around locker rooms, bars or water coolers.

When Woodrow Wilson courted his second wife, people said she was so surprised she fell out of bed. Jokes about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were vicious -- unthinkable that the stuff would be broadcast on radio.

Until now, public humor about presidents was oh-so-genteel: Bob Hope's jokes about Dwight D. Eisenhower's golf swing. Vaughan Meader's "First Family" record about the Kennedys. Chevy Chase doing a Jerry Ford pratfall. It was daring when Johnny Carson said Richard M. Nixon's favorite ice cream was "imPEACHment."

With Mr. Clinton, kid gloves are off. Biff, bam, it's Bill and Monica and Paula and Kathleen. Five minutes of a late-night comic's monologue bristle with presidential gags you once wouldn't hear in the raunchiest nightclub.

Key question: How does Mr. Clinton react to this cascade of blue humor? Foot-stomping anger? Would comedians in his presence pull their punches? Would Mr. Clinton duck this spring's media ++ dinners? He'd already canceled an Alfalfa Club roast.

Expected no-show

So, there were early doubts whether Mr. Clinton would expose himself to the heckling of the Gridiron Club, a white-tie extravaganza where 60 news elitists lampoon pols in song and skit.

The prez might have alibied, "Sorry, I'm packing for Africa." He had precedent. Grover Cleveland, rumored to have an illegitimate baby by a mistress, avoided Gridiron slurs. So did Nixon during the Watergate frenzy.

But in a new definition of chutzpah, Mr. Clinton didn't merely show up. He took singing jabs at Monica Mayhem with rueful grace. He capped the evening with one-liners skewering the scandal.

As Gridiron prez Bob Novak told Mr. Clinton, "We admire your courage, but it beats talking to the grand jury."

Granted, a Gridiron show (it "singes but never burns") isn't down-and-dirty rowdiness. So Mr. Clinton roared as columnist Carl Rowan, portraying golf pal Vernon Jordan, sang a "Deep River" takeoff: "Dee-e-ep Doo Doo." The prez chuckled as a singer playing independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr caroled, "I'd do anything to nail him, anything "

But the Clintons were stony as a singer advised beret-wearing White House interns: "Don't say you admire his buns, people will say you're in love."

The first couple laughed, though, when Socks, parodying "Memories," lamented, "Harold Ickes warned me, Socks, beware of Bill's capers, when he no longer needs you, you'll read it in the papers."

For the record, Hillary Rodham Clinton's reaction to this dirge about her husband's unfaithfulness was head-back, ear-tearing whoops.

Once again, Mr. Clinton proved amazingly resilient. This was a tough, cynical audience of 600 Cabinet types, Republican pols, TV anchors. I doubt any other president (maybe John F. Kennedy) could have faced the lions with poised, self-deprecating wit at his own scandal.

"So, how was your week?" Mr. Clinton began.

"Please hold the subpoenas until all the jokes are told."

He added that his gags were funnier before lawyers "redacted" them. He'd asked the legal team about mentioning Mr. Starr.

"Sure, Brenda, Bart and Ringo.

"Don't worry if you have to go to the bathroom," he said. "This speech will be on a Web site tonight. And retracted tomorrow."

Mr. Clinton noted John Travolta's copycat performance in "Primary Colors" wasn't the first time Mr. Travolta imitated his style. The prez did a dance mimic of "Saturday Night Fever." "After all," Mr. Clinton said, "that's my theme song: 'Stayin' Alive.' "

The applause was not only for Mr. Clinton's patter but also his audacity. Never mind his future as stand-up comic. When most presidents would have taken a powder, Mr. Clinton showed gutsy insouciance.

"During this meal, the president's job rating will go up another six points," House Speaker Newt Gingrich rued.

Maybe his detachment, his gift for rolling with the punches and soldiering on, is why Mr. Clinton floats above the tragicomic sexcapades.

Somehow, he's stayin' alive.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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