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'Tim Russert' for Saturday, May 31

Read the transcript to the Saturday show

Guests: Charles Osgood, Michael Beschloss

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  We are in the midst of one of the most interesting presidential elections in our history.  As we look at our presidents, what are the traits you would most like them to possess?  How about a sense of humor and courage?

Here to talk about that and a whole lot more, Charles Osgood.  His new book, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House: Humor, Blunders and Other Oddities From the Presidential Campaign Trail.”

And Michael Beschloss, NBC‘s presidential historian.  His book is now out in paperback—“Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America.”

Welcome both.



HOUSE”:  Thank you, Tim.

RUSSERT:  Charles Osgood, why did you put this together, this book of presidential humor?

OSGOOD:  Well, it seemed to me that this—as interesting as it is—I mean, it is very interesting—it seemed to not have as much humor in it as campaigns as I remembered them.  I started following politics on the radio, but, you know, back in the Dewey/Roosevelt election.  And it seemed to me that they were wild and raucous and an awful lot of fun to follow.  It‘s actually like going to a ballgame.  You never knew what was going to happen, but you know something was always just about to happen.

RUSSERT:  Much less scripted.

OSGOOD:  Much less scripted.  And now we‘re at the point where people, you know, are saying, god forbid we should have to select a candidate—select a presidential candidate at the convention, because that‘s what they always used to do.

So I just went back and looked at a few of the things that have happened in elections past, the ones that I could remember.  And I think I was right about that.  Now everything is so planned and choreographed, and nothing is supposed to happen that wasn‘t planned and decided in advance.

RUSSERT:  And some of the things these candidates said, they probably weren‘t intended to be funny, Michael Beschloss.  1948, Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey, they asked Dewey about his campaign strategy.  He said, “Don‘t talk.”

BESCHLOSS:  Right.  Well, it didn‘t work for him that year.  And Truman almost the opposite, because one of—you know, one of the things that Truman‘s aides were always worried about was that Truman didn‘t sound like Franklin Roosevelt, didn‘t use the language.

And Truman was once asked by a reporter, “What do you think of Richard Nixon?”  And Truman said, “I think Nixon is full of manure.” 

So the aides went wild.  They went to Mrs. Truman, “Can‘t you get the boss

to speak a little bit more like Roosevelt?”  And she says, “You have no

idea how long it took for me to get him to use the word ‘manure.‘”


BESCHLOSS:  That‘s what she was dealing with.

RUSSERT:  Editing.

Probably the biggest joke in the 1948 race was on the press, the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

OSGOOD:  And he got more fun out of that than anybody.  You know, that‘s a sort of iconic photo of him holding up the newspaper.  And what he said was -- they said, “Well, didn‘t you stay up all night following the election?”  He said, “No.  I just had a glass of buttermilk and went to bed.”

RUSSERT:  I mean, has the media ever gotten something so wrong, Michael?

BESCHLOSS:  Not so much as that.  I think in lesser elections.  But you know, that‘s the thing that‘s so interesting about all of this in Charles‘ book. 

These things all show us a lot about a president, a lot about a candidate, because of that one moment when Truman was saying, “Everyone expected me to lose and I won.”  A lot of people saw a quality in Truman which was this tough, tenacious guy who wasn‘t going to be captured by the conventional wisdom.

OSGOOD:  I think one of the most famous pieces, imitation that everybody did was, it was Truman doing H. V. Kaltenborn—“And the president is going to lose.”  And he imitated Kaltenborn doing him.


RUSSERT:  Harry Truman—“Give ‘em hell, Harry.”  Where did that come from?

OSGOOD:  Well, what he said was—and he said, “Hell,” he said, “they just thought it was the truth and they thought it was hell.”

RUSSERT:  But it really stuck for him, didn‘t it, this tough, tenacious kind of character?

BESCHLOSS:  Yes, someone who didn‘t care about appearances.  And you know, Truman once later on, in 1952, he was trying to get Adlai Stevenson to run to succeed him. 

Stevenson was governor of Illinois, thought it was a Republican year, didn‘t want to do it.  And so Truman told him in private, you know, “Adlai, I‘m a numbskull.  I had no college education.  I‘ve done all right.  Think what a guy like you can do, who went to Princeton.”

And Stevenson thought, you know, that was Truman, you know, being modest and, you know, overly-deprecating about his own qualities, but he didn‘t get it.  What Truman was basically saying was, maybe a college education at some fancy place is not important.

RUSSERT:  Margaret Truman, the president‘s daughter, he got in a lot of trouble with her and her lack of piano playing ability, shall we say?

OSGOOD:  Well, she was a singer.  And I worked at a radio station, WGMS in Washington, a classical music station, where Paul Hume, who was the music critic of “The Washington Post,” was working.  And he had written a negative review of a song concert by Margaret Truman, and Truman wrote a very, very nasty letter, threatening to punch him in the nose and calling him an SOB.

BESCHLOSS:  And when I‘m finished with you, you‘ll need an athletic supporter below.

OSGOOD:  The president—you know, you don‘t write letters like that.  It‘s not—you don‘t find letters like that in the collection of Lincoln‘s letters or anything of the sort.

RUSSERT:  But the country found that quite taking, didn‘t they?  I mean, they...

BESCHLOSS:  Absolutely...


BESCHLOSS:  ... because everyone thought, you know, in the White House, oh, this is going to make Truman look like this figure who shouldn‘t be president.  But, in fact, people loved it because he showed he was loyal to his daughter.

RUSSERT:  Adlai Stevenson versus Dwight David Eisenhower in 1952.  Did Eisenhower have any sense of humor?

OSGOOD:  He didn‘t show it very much, but people liked him.  When it came to likability, they might laugh at some of the really truly clever things that Stevenson said.  But Ike had this very winning smile.  He—in fact, people say that babies look like Dwight Eisenhower, they all look like Dwight Eisenhower.


OSGOOD:  Sort of like him.  You know, he had about as much hair.  And ruby (ph) cheeks.

RUSSERT:  Right.

OSGOOD:  And he did have a very sort of winning smile.  And people related to that.

RUSSERT:  Now, Stevenson, on the other hand, was constantly poking fun at his own elitist background?

BESCHLOSS:  Absolutely.  Someone went to Stevenson and said, “All thinking people are voting for you.”  And Stevenson would say, “That‘s not going to help.  I need a majority.”  Would say things like that.

But you know, some of the best stories were actually told about Stevenson.  For instance, this is not a guy who connected easily with voters.  And Florida primary in 1956, he was in a shopping center, it wasn‘t going well. 

He asked his aides, “What am I doing wrong?”  So finally someone said,

“Governor, here‘s the problem.  This morning, that little girl handed you

that stuffed baby alligator.  You should have said, ‘Thank you.  That will

look perfect in my living room,‘ instead of what you did tell her,

Governor, which was, ‘For Christ sake, what‘s this?‘”


BESCHLOSS:  He didn‘t do well.

RUSSERT:  You have a wonderful story, Charles, where Stevenson starts speaking and he says, “I can say this, I can say this, but it‘s raining.  Let‘s get out of here.”

OSGOOD:  Well, I think that was probably very appreciated at the time.  But you know, I think he had wit.  I mean, a genuine wit.  And he was able to say things on the spur of the moment that were funny because they just happened, and sometimes unintentionally, like about the alligator.

But he would also say some things like—he said, “I‘m tempted to make a deal with the Republicans.”  And the view would be that, “If they would stop telling lies about us, I would stop telling the truth about them.”


RUSSERT:  We‘re going to take a quick break.

Charles Osgood is our guest.  His new book, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House: Humor, Blunders and Other Oddities From the Presidential Campaign Trail.”  And presidential historian Michael Beschloss, “Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America.”

We‘ll be right back.


RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Charles Osgood, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House.” 

“Presidential Courage” with presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Michael Beschloss, Harry Truman, a character.  We talked about that side of him.  But you also detail courage, presidential courage that you saw exhibited by Harry Truman.

BESCHLOSS:  Yes, and you could probably tell a lot of stories about Truman. 

The one I told about was Truman recognizing Israel in the spring of ‘48. 

All sorts of cross-pressures.  People wanted him to do it or not to do it. 

And what was at stake was the survival of this new Jewish state.

And what finally decided it for Truman was, when he was a kid, you know, growing up in Independence, Missouri, had these thick glasses.  His parents were so poor they said, you can‘t play football because you‘ll break the glasses.  We can‘t afford to buy you new ones.

So he read.  And he used to say, “I read every book in the Independence Public Library,” which I always thought was an exaggeration until I went to Independence.  It‘s not that big a library.

OSGOOD:  About six books.

BESCHLOSS:  A few more, but not many more.  But what decided was, he had read this book as a kid his mother bought from a traveling salesman.  A totally politically incorrect title, which was, “Great Men and Famous Women”—the idea that women could not be great, only famous—from Nebakanezer to Sarah Bernhardt.

And he remembered reading about Cyrus the Great who had brought the Jewish people to Zion 2,000 years earlier.  And so knowing the story helped him to really resolve all this cacophony that was going on around him.

RUSSERT:  And later, there were some examples shown of Truman using anti-Semitic language.  And yet, he did something very bold regarding the state of Israel.

BESCHLOSS:  He did.  Not unlike Lyndon Johnson, later on, who used the “N” word in private.  Sure did on some of those tapes that had been released, but at the same time, was the one who brought us the Civil Rights Act, at least got it passed.  The same thing with voting rights.

RUSSERT:  I‘m sorry, go ahead.

OSGOOD:  He claimed that it was not a difficult decision.  People assumed that it must have been to drop the A-bomb.  But he had that decision to make, and he didn‘t know anything about the A-bomb.  But they told him about it shortly after he became president, and he saw it as an easy decision to make.

RUSSERT:  What a decision.

BESCHLOSS:  Yes.  That‘s sort of like firing General MacArthur during the Korean War for insubordination in ‘51.


BESCHLOSS:  Remember, MacArthur came back and spoke to Congress.  And Democrats were worried he‘d run against Truman.  They were nervous, and it was said that as MacArthur gave this emotional speech on the Republican side of the House, there was not a dry eye on the Democratic side of the House.  There was not a dry seat.


RUSSERT:  1960: John F. Kennedy versus Richard Nixon.  One candidate just renowned for his sense of humor, John Kennedy.

OSGOOD:  He was the best.  I mean, he was just terrific and had such a natural way about him.  And people took to him.  And he looked great, sounded great, and the debate was a great format for him.  Although people who listened on the radio thought that Nixon had won.

RUSSERT:  You write about how his father, Joe Kennedy, was the subject of one of John‘s jokes.

OSGOOD:  Yes.  Well, John pretended that he had just received a message

from his father.  Well, it was said that his father was trying to buy the

White House for him.  And he said, “I got a message that says—from my

dad—it says, ‘Jack, do not spend one more dollar than necessary.  I

can‘t afford to pay for a landslide.‘”


RUSSERT:  It went over quite well.

OSGOOD:  Yes.  Everybody laughed.  And he was able to handle a lot of criticism like that.  Somebody had said, “Do you think it would be OK for a Protestant to become president of the United States?”  And he said, “I have no objection of that, as long as promises to honor the separation of church and state.”

RUSSERT:  There you go.

BESCHLOSS:  Exactly.

RUSSERT:  I mean, repeatedly through the news conferences, Michael, the sense of humor, the Kennedy sense of humor, deflecting some very difficult issues.

BESCHLOSS:  It really worked for him.  You know, people had seen a little of that in the campaign, but they really saw it when he was president.

You know, he was charming and self-deprecating.  You know, once he was asked by one of the reporters at one of these press conferences, who said, “The Republican National Committee has just put out a statement saying that your administration is a total failure.”  And Kennedy said, “I‘m sure it passed unanimously.”

He was funny in public, but in a way more so in private.  He had this acid wit during the ‘60 campaign.  You know, as we all know, political managers occasionally inflate the numbers in a crowd estimate.  You know, the number of people who turned out to see their guy or woman.  And Kennedy was saying to his people, you know, count the nuns, multiply by 20.


RUSSERT:  The priests and the nuns were for Kennedy, and the bishops and the cardinals were for Nixon.

BESCHLOSS:  Absolutely.

RUSSERT:  That was the rule of thumb.

BESCHLOSS:  And that was actually right.

RUSSERT:  How about Richard Nixon?  A sense of humor?

OSGOOD:  I don‘t think very much of a sense of humor.  However, he—I remember he was the one who was on “Laugh-In.”

RUSSERT:  “Sock it to me.”

OSGOOD:  He was the first president to say, “Sock it to me.”

BESCHLOSS:  Although a highly scripted and not very convincing performance.

OSGOOD:  But you know, that‘s what I think about these performances on Letterman or on “The Tonight Show.”  I think they have the feel of something that was writing by a gang (ph) writer.  And so that‘s not substitute for coming up with a really funny line on the right occasion.

BESCHLOSS:  And most presidents and candidates are not terribly funny people.  I mean, especially going through history.

Most of American history, if you were too funny you were considered to be sort of a lightweight.  That charge was made against Stevenson when he ran.  Also against Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln loved these funny stories that were written by a guy named Petroleum Nasby.  He loved to tell jokes.  And so during his campaign in ‘64, his enemies said, you know, Lincoln is someone who is telling jokes while union soldiers are dying.  Someone said this to Lincoln, and Lincoln said, “I couldn‘t possibly bear to be commander in chief and prosecute this war without some kind of private relief like telling stories.”

RUSSERT:  It was always Adlai Stevenson who quoted Abraham Lincoln about laughing and crying.


RUSSERT:  About losing an election.


RUSSERT:  How did that go?

BESCHLOSS:  When he lost in ‘52, he said, “I feel a little bit like our fellow townsman.”  Stevenson was living in Springfield, Illinois.  Abraham Lincoln, who told about the boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark, said, “I‘m too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh.”


Another quick break.

Charles Osgood, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House.” 

Michael Beschloss, “Presidential Courage.”

We will be right back.


RUSSERT:  And we are back.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House” -- 1964, Barry Goldwater versus Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Johnson had a profane sense of humor?

OSGOOD:  Yes.  I guess he did.


OSGOOD:  But—and I tell you, he was not a very good speaker at all.  And I don‘t know that he was ever successful at using humor in any of his...

RUSSERT:  But some of those tapes we heard later on, Michael, indicated he was not afraid to be a little raw in talking to some...


BESCHLOSS:  No more than a little.  But only in private, because, you know, we watched LBJ as kids, you know, on TV.  And I don‘t know if you ever saw, Tim, there was a cartoon called “Clutch Cargo.”  You know, still face, only the mouth moves.


BESCHLOSS:  Conan O‘Brien uses that sometimes.


BESCHLOSS:  And that‘s what LBJ reminded me of.  And that‘s because Johnson‘s idea of a president was Grover Cleveland.  If people had seen more of this human side, and even some of the raunchy humor and language, he would have seemed a little bit more hip and accessible.

RUSSERT:  And Barry Goldwater the same in private, not afraid to let a good story be told.  And yet, I‘m thinking what I read the other day about John McCain and Barack Obama talking about doing these joint appearances in the summer of 2008, shortly before President Kennedy was assassinated Barry Goldwater and Kennedy were actually thinking about in 1964 traveling the country together.  How remarkable.

OSGOOD:  That might have been quite a thing to do that.  It would have been a good president asset (ph).

RUSSERT:  You see Air Force One land in your town.  These two men get out, have a robust debate about issues, shake hands and go back on the plane again.

BESCHLOSS:  I think it‘s a lovely idea, but what would you think, you know, if Kennedy is running 20 points ahead of Goldwater?  Would the aides in the end have let him give Goldwater that kind of attention, their time?

OSGOOD:  But don‘t you think that maybe starting then, but especially so now, that it is the aides and the handlers that tell you whether something is a good idea or not to do?

You know, I got to know Eric Dirksen because I had written a song when I was in the Army Band that he actually recorded.  He read my words.  It was called “Gallant Men.”

RUSSERT:  With that growly (ph) voice.

OSGOOD:  Yes.  I actually wrote those words that he narrated, and helped to produce...


BESCHLOSS:  I was glad to hear that he was not singing (INAUDIBLE).

OSGOOD:  Bound to the ears.

He had that wonderful—he had emphysema, you know.  And so he had to speak in very short phrases.

But I found out in the time that I spent with him that at the end of every day, although he and Lyndon Johnson were majority and minority leaders, one or the other depending on who was in power, that they would get together at the end of every day and have a drink because they were friends.  They had -- they really did hold each other in high regard.  And somehow I can‘t imagine that happening today, because...

RUSSERT:  Now they all retreat to raise money.

BESCHLOSS:  And that‘s the thing.  And Johnson and Dirksen disagreed violently on things, but they could work together at times.  And ‘64, when Johnson was trying to get the Civil Rights bill passed, he said to Dirksen essentially, I know you‘ve got some problems with this bill, but I need Republicans because my white southern Democratic senators are going to support this thing.

He said, Ev, look at it this way.  You support this bill, we‘ll change history.  A hundred years from now schoolchildren will know any two names - - Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen.  And Dirksen heard that and loved it, and I think had something to do with the fact that he supported the bill.  And it did change history.

OSGOOD:  He had sort of a very personal style, Johnson did.  I had that experience one time of—I was being sent to the White House just as a sub for somebody else.  And he did one of his walks around the White House.  That was because all of the real reporters were in Atlantic City, where the convention was being held, ‘64.

RUSSERT:  So you got the full Johnson treatment.

OSGOOD:  So I wanted to ask him a question, and I thought of a really hardball question to ask him.  I said, “Mr. President, how are you feeling?”


OSGOOD:  So he recognized what I was, put his arm around me.  And we took about three circuits around the White House, with me right under his arm, because it stopped everybody else from coming over and asking questions he didn‘t want to hear.


OSGOOD:  But he also was a guy who could even be funny in being tough.  And at one point he called—he called Fulbright—after the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam, he said, “Bill, where are you getting all that stuff that you‘re saying at those hearings?”  And he said, well—he said, “It‘s no secret, Mr. President.”  He said, “It‘s right there in Walter Whitman.”

He said, “I‘ll tell you what, Bill.”  He said, “Next time you need to (INAUDIBLE), why don‘t you see if you can get it from Walter Whitman?”

RUSSERT:  Not bad.  Power in the end.


RUSSERT:  1968: Nixon, Humphrey, George Wallace.

Hubert Humphrey, I actually remember him coming to Buffalo in 1968, and a

protester in the gallery of the political event, rally, screaming.  And

Humphrey turned and said, “Hey, buddy.  I‘ve got two words for you, and

they‘re not ‘happy motoring.‘”


RUSSERT:  It plays down to a nice, clean humor.  But Humphrey had a wonderful sense, a way about him, didn‘t he, Michael?

BESCHLOSS:  Did, and never brief, as you know.  He used to speak, it seemed sometimes, two or three hours. 

And once Humphrey had done this, and even he knew he had gone on too long.  And so he finally shouts out to someone in the crowd, “Anybody here got a watch?”  And someone yelled back, “How about a calendar?”  But it didn‘t stop him after that.

OSGOOD:  And then he was accused at speaking at 150 miles an hour, dressed (ph) to 175.  But the thing about Humphrey that I thought—it ended up when he tried to get—when he was running for president, didn‘t win, and the candidate that year was Jimmy Carter.  Jimmy Carter stood up at the convention and he wanted to pay homage to those who had been candidates but who didn‘t get the nomination.

BESCHLOSS:  1980, yes.

OSGOOD:  Yes.  And he said that great American, Hubert Horatio Hornblower.

BESCHLOSS:  Hubert Horatio Hornblower.

OSGOOD:  That was absolutely stunning, that that could have actually happened.  But it actually did.

RUSSERT:  I was there.  I couldn‘t believe it.  And I kept looking, looking at the techs, looking up.  How would that happen?

OSGOOD:  Unless it was a literary reference.

RUSSERT:  When you think about how something like that happened, it‘s remarkable.


RUSSERT:  George Wallace had a pointy head sense of humor.  He went after the media, he went after the Washington politicians.  It got great laughs all across the country.

BESCHLOSS:  Yes.  That was a large part of his appeal, because in ‘68, you know, he was baiting the elite, people like Nixon and Humphrey and LBJ, by saying, you know, they‘re infavorable (ph), these point-headed bureaucrats with—you probably open up their briefcases, nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  It was his way of connecting with his demographic, as we‘d say it nowadays.

RUSSERT:  Another quick break.

Charles Osgood, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House.” 

Michael Beschloss, “Presidential Courage.”

We‘ll be right back.


RUSSERT:  And we are back.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House: Humor, Blunders and Other Oddities From the Presidential Campaign Trail,” Charles Osgood.  And “Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America,” by Michael Beschloss, NBC‘s presidential historian.

1972: Richard Nixon, George McGovern, landslide.  Absolute landslide.  One of my favorite stories though in the campaign was at the very end.  I think he was in Pittsburgh. 

McGovern went on a commercial flight.  He was broke.  And he was apologizing to people.  They held the flight for a few minutes.  And he had been working a lot of rope line as well.

And one guy finally said, “You‘re awful.  You stink.  Your wife stinks. 

Your family stinks.”

McGovern kept going down the line, and finally turned around and walked all the way back and said, “Why don‘t you kiss my...”  And he got on the plane and buttoned his coat, and felt great for the first time, right?

BESCHLOSS:  And it actually helped him with some of these working class voters we keep on hearing about this year who thought that, you know, McGovern was a little bit, you know, too elite for them.  And the other thing that McGovern said later on, once said it to me, was, you know, “I made the biggest mistake that year because I have this great war record.”

He flew all these combat missions during World War II over Italy, but he never talked about it because he was a peace candidate.  And he said, “If people had known that side of me I might have done better.”  And I think he was right.

RUSSERT:  Richard Nixon, presidential courage?  China?

BESCHLOSS:  China, except for, you know, I think it would have been more courageous if he had had a Richard Nixon who was going to denounce him for doing it, which he didn‘t.  But, you know, that‘s sort of the difference.  You can have a president who shows guts but maybe not wisdom.

When Nixon went into Cambodia in 1970, invaded Cambodia to try to hasten an end to the Vietnam War, you know, he gave this speech saying, “My aides have told me unanimously not to do this because people will be very angry at me,” and he was right.  It did take some guts.

But in retrospect, it was a stupid decision, because in the end, it lengthened the war.  It didn‘t shorten it.

RUSSERT:  1976: Jerry Ford, Jimmy Carter.  And Jerry Ford believes to this day he lost the race because he pardoned Richard Nixon.

Presidential courage?

BESCHLOSS:  I think so.  And paid a big price for it, and did it, I think, for a good cause.

In retrospect, Ford in 2001 got the Profiles in Courage Award from the Kennedy Library and the committee that does that.  Ted Kennedy was fervently in favor of that.  But in 1974, at the time that Ford did that, Kennedy was one of the biggest critics of Ford having pardoned Nixon.  He said, “I was wrong.”

OSGOOD:  I think it also takes some courage sometimes for a candidate.  I mean, if you‘re trying to evaluate what sort of a president a man would be, or a woman, and you‘re listening to what they‘re saying during the campaign, I think it‘s something that‘s fair to say that if a candidate is willing to say something to an audience that he knows they‘re not going to like because he believes it to be true, that that‘s—you know, that ought to go in the plus column for the presidential candidate.

RUSSERT:  It was interesting reading Tom Friedman in “The New York Times” article the other day talking about just that issue on this gas tax holiday, where John McCain and Hillary Clinton were saying we have to suspend the federal gas tax during the summer holiday, and Obama took another position.  Friedman‘s view, that is you have to keep gas prices high now, and finally weaning the American public off of oil, and the presidential candidates should have the courage to say just that.

You may, but you may lose an election.

BESCHLOSS:  Well, although I think, you know, if you feel that that was courage, as I do—I feel it was for Barack Obama at the time of the Indiana primary to come out against that kind of a gas tax holiday—the polling later on showed that a lot of voters said, we think this was a trick, we admire Obama for having stood up to it and voted for it.

RUSSERT:  Jimmy Carter—in your book, Charles, you talked about Billy Carter, the beer-drinking brother of Jimmy Carter, who had a certain view about his family.

OSGOOD:  Well, this was I think during the campaign.  He said, I‘ve got a mother who went to India and joined the Peace Corps, you know, when she was in her 70s. And I‘ve got a sister who‘s a holy roller.  I‘ve got another—

I‘ve got a brother who thinks he‘s going to be president of the United States.  He said, I‘m the only sane one in the family.


RUSSERT:  Billy Carter.

BESCHLOSS:  And he used joke often about the fact that his brother Jimmy was sort of disconnected from a lot of life and is a pretty serious guy.  And Ronald Reagan found this on the way to the inauguration, 1981.

He and Carter were riding in that car up to Capitol Hill.  He had defeated Carter.  It was a very icy atmosphere between them.  And Reagan, as was his thing, was trying to lighten it up by telling these great stories about the Hollywood moguls he had known.  You know, people at Warner Brothers and Paramount and so on.

So he‘s telling these stories.  The car pulls up at the Capitol.  Carter gets out and darts over to one of his aides and says, “Who is this Jack Warner that Reagan keeps on talking about?”


RUSSERT:  Who appointed him?


RUSSERT:  You know, we think about Jimmy Carter, and we remember Hamilton Jordan who died recently.

BESCHLOSS:  A great man.

RUSSERT:  1972, this young 28-year-old in Georgia, aide in Georgia, wrote a 50-some page memo saying to the one-term governor of Georgia, this is how you get to be president.  You read that memo today, it‘s genius the way he understood American politics.  It really truly is.

OSGOOD:  He (ph) was so unknown that Carter was on “What‘s My Line?”  You know, the mystery guest.  And nobody—he came out and he signed on, and it said Governor...

BESCHLOSS:  Wearing a mask, right?

OSGOOD:  No.  But actually, they were wearing masks because most of the mystery guests were people that they had heard of.


OSGOOD:  But to the audience this was—it might have been just anybody. 


RUSSERT:  And Jordan‘s funeral he said, “He was like my son.  And he made a Georgia peanut farmer the president of the United States.”  Pretty moving.

Ronald Reagan, good sense of humor, but also, you write in “Presidential Courage,” someone who demonstrated courage as a leader of the free world.

BESCHLOSS:  Yes.  And in the Cold War and going against a lot of hard-line Republicans who were very worried about what he was doing with Mikhail Gorbachev.

But you know, here‘s a case where Reagan used humor in a way that was very important for all of us.  The shooting, end of March, 1981, he was shot outside the Washington Hilton, almost killed.  And all of us were wondering what shape he was in.  You know, how he would take this.

And he would have these one-liners.  He would write on a pad of paper to his nurses, to his wife, and these began to get out.  And the best one was, he said, you know, let‘s do the scene at the Hilton again, but this time, do it—go back to the beginning and do it a different way once we come out of the building.

And what that showed people was not only that this was a guy with a sense of humor, but this was a person with enormous grace, who was able to be shot, almost killed, but not be angry and bitter about it.  Was able to react to it with humor.

RUSSERT:  He took a bullet and survived, which is symbolically so important to the American people, and have seen that in just the way you described it.

We‘re going to take another quick break.

Charles Osgood is our guest and the author of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House.”  He‘s joined my Michael Beschloss, NBC‘s presidential historian.  His book now out in paperback, “Presidential Courage.”

We‘ll be right back.


RUSSERT:  And we are back.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House,” Charles Osgood. 

“Presidential Courage,” Michael Beschloss.

Let‘s go back to Ronald Reagan a little bit.

Remember those debates with Jimmy Carter?  “There you go again.”  Or the debate with Walter Mondale when he said he wouldn‘t use his youth and inexperience as an issue against him?


RUSSERT:  I mean, a master at using humor as a way to deal with the issue of age.

OSGOOD:  In fact, at one point he had said that when he was a boy, it was so much easier to be president, because there were only 13 states at that time. 

And after the famous line in the vice presidential debate, which was, you know, “I knew John Kennedy, and you‘re no John Kennedy.”

RUSSERT:  Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen.

OSGOOD:  Yes.  But after that line had become as well known as it was, and Clinton got the nomination—or actually, he was—yes, he got the Democratic nomination.  And somebody asked Reagan about that.  And he said, well—he said, “I think his name is Jefferson, isn‘t it, Bill Jefferson Clinton?”  He said, “I knew Thomas Jefferson, and he‘s no Thomas Jefferson.”


RUSSERT:  Jumped right on him.


BESCHLOSS:  But you know, that shows how much this really works, because Reagan‘s second debate against Mondale in 1984, he made that joke about Mondale‘s youth.  That‘s what everyone remembered.  But actually, what people were looking for were signs that Reagan‘s age were affecting him.

And he actually made some bloopers in that debate, such as identifying a CIA station in Latin America, several others, that without that joke, that might have been seen as a demonstration of the fact that he wasn‘t up to it.  So one instance of humor can really work for you, especially these days.

RUSSERT:  Walter Mondale I thought had a pretty endearing line after the campaign.  He said, you know, television—“I never warmed television, but TV never warmed me either.”

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Never warmed me either.

OSGOOD:  Well, you interviewed Mondale.

RUSSERT:  Yes.  He can be so warm and engaging as a person.


RUSSERT:  But on TV he gets rather rigid.  It‘s quite striking.

BESCHLOSS:  Yes.  It just doesn‘t come across.

But you know, that‘s why all of this is so important, because for most of American history, you know, the conventions, the office holders were the ones who chose presidential nominees.  We didn‘t have to really get into what their characters are like, what their personalities are like.  These days it‘s us.  And so that‘s why one little statement or one story that seems to reveal a lot about someone can really make the difference.

RUSSERT:  And with 24/7 cable and talk radio, and now all the blogs, every little detail is reported on.  I mean, this is the same nation that 60-some years ago never showed Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair.

BESCHLOSS:  Absolutely.

OSGOOD:  Isn‘t that amazing?

RUSSERT:  A profound change.

OSGOOD:  And I think that that evolution of the way presidents are treated by the press has led us to where we are today, where everything that you say has got a potential “gotcha” at the end.  If you‘re talking to a small group of people—and I‘ve followed some candidates around.  I was in Iowa with Gene McCarthy and talking to pig farmers and people like that, and he‘s—he could talk to them in their own language.  But there‘d be somebody—today there‘d be somebody there that will be on YouTube...


BESCHLOSS:  Ask George Allen.

OSGOOD:  Right.

RUSSERT:  The “macaca” moment.

OSGOOD:  Right.

RUSSERT:  Michael Beschloss, let me take advantage of your vast knowledge of presidential politics and history.  Scott McClellan, former White House press secretary, has a new book out called “What Happened?” 

What‘s our history of presidential aides writing books while the president they served is still in office?

BESCHLOSS:  It doesn‘t always happen, but it happens once in a while.  And even when George Washington was president, 1795, he fired his secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, thought that Randolph might have been on the take, taking bribes from the French, which actually he may have been doing.

And Randolph was furious, wrote this enormous screed pamphlet against George Washington, thinking that it would turn the tables, make Washington unpopular, and make Randolph a hero.  Of course, Washington was so beloved, it had the opposite effect.

RUSSERT:  But the pamphleteers were the original bloggers, weren‘t they?

BESCHLOSS:  They were.  And that‘s one of the great things about early America, because, you know, when people wanted to argue about politics, they would put out a pamphlet, or they would write in a gazette.  And in a way, our blogs nowadays are recreating that atmosphere.

OSGOOD:  (INAUDIBLE) would have a blog if he was around today.

RUSSERT:  Absolutely.

BESCHLOSS:  It would be nice to think.

RUSSERT:  What kind of pressure does it put on a president though, now fearing that one of his most trusted advisers might write a book while he‘s still in office?

OSGOOD:  Yes, that—you have to be very careful.

RUSSERT:  Even without White House tapes.  It‘s got to be very much on your mind.

BESCHLOSS:  I think it is, but, you know, from my point of view, it‘s accountability.  You know, a president should be as transparent as possible.  And one of the forms of that is realizing the people who work for you may write about things that they saw behind the scenes.  Not in a way that‘s grossly disloyal or revealing national secrets, but in general I think presidential power should be leashed, and this is one way of doing it.

RUSSERT:  And yet, many of these presidents—I know President Bush doesn‘t use e-mail because he‘s fearful of it being subpoenaed.  And what does that do to someone like you, who would go back and read letters from presidents?

BESCHLOSS:  It is killing us.  It is putting out of business.


BESCHLOSS:  You know, FDR had all these people around him writing diaries and letters.  And he wrote letters.  Nowadays, a new president comes in, a Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.  The lawyers there saying, Mr. President, no e-mails.  Try not to write memos. 

You know, don‘t keep a diary.  You know, try to write letters because they might get subpoenaed or leaked.  But for historians, we‘re going to have the hardest time years from now getting into these people‘s heads, using that kind of evidence which we got from most presidents.

OSGOOD:  And Nixon wanted a record of everything that he said and did in the White House.  And those were the Watergate tapes.  So that kind of backfired on him.

RUSSERT:  And remarkable those tapes.  And how extensive they were.  And Kennedy had tapes.

BESCHLOSS:  Absolutely.

RUSSERT:  And Johnson had tapes, as we now know.

BESCHLOSS:  Which, wonderful for the historian and all of us, but a little violation of civil liberties to be taken of someone without their knowledge.  I once later on asked President Clinton when he was serving in office, “I think I know the answer, but are you taping any of your conversations privately?”  And his reply was, “Are you kidding?”


RUSSERT:  What did you mean by that, Michael?

We‘re going to take a quick break.

We‘re talking to Charles Osgood, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House: Humor, Blunders and Other Oddities From the Presidential Campaign Trail.”  And Michael Beschloss.  His book, “Presidential Courage:

Brave Leaders and How They Changed America.”  Also available in paperback.

We‘ll be right back.


RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Charles Osgood, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House.”

One of the people who ran for president was a fellow by the name of Moe Udall, a congressman from Arizona, who in Washington was highly regarded as probably the funniest politician there was.  You captured a couple of his one-liners.

OSGOOD:  Yes.  I think my favorite line in the book—I guess this is cable TV.  We can say...

RUSSERT:  You can say it.

OSGOOD:  When it was clear that he was not going to be able to get the nomination, although he came in second in a number of primaries, he said, “Well, the voters have spoken.  Bastards.”


RUSSERT:  Udall is so good.  And he—he had one eye, as he would describe himself.  A one-eyed congressman from Arizona.  What chance did he have of winning.  But just legendary on the campaign trail.

BESCHLOSS:  That‘s right.  You know, would tell the story—you know, he had told someone I think in a New Hampshire barber shop, “I‘m running for president.”  And someone else said, “Yes, we were just laughing about that the other day.”


BESCHLOSS:  But you know, made him seem as if this was not some pompous Washington politician.  And nowadays it‘s essential because, you know, unlike an Abraham Lincoln or a James Polk, these guys have to go on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.  You know, we saw more of the way they talk.  And if they come across as a windbag, or as a Grover Cleveland, it‘s not going to help them in this age.  It‘s a big qualification for being president.

OSGOOD:  I think that‘s part of likability, I think.


OSGOOD:  We like to be with people who are funny and who smile a lot and laugh a lot.  And we don‘t like people who are so—too self-important to smile or laugh.

RUSSERT:  Well, isn‘t a sense of humor, self-deprecating humor, important for a leader to have?

BESCHLOSS:  It is.  And we know about it now in a way that we didn‘t a century ago.  I mean, Benjamin Harrison may have deprecated himself or not, but you weren‘t going to find out much about it because the way Americans would have known about it would have been through the newspaper.  You‘d be reading his long speeches.  Nowadays, they‘re in our face 24 hours a day in a campaign.

And especially as president.  Unless you feel this is a human who in some ways shares my values and I could really live with, it‘s a problem.

OSGOOD:  I think it was that one speech of Howard Dean‘s where he was—all he was doing was just listing the places that he was going to go next.

RUSSERT:  The scream.

OSGOOD:  But he did that with—he scared people to death.  And that was it.  No more.

BESCHLOSS:  But, 2000, George W. Bush versus Al Gore, if Bush had come across as less of an appealing figure in those debates, Gore would have been president.

RUSSERT:  And yet Gore has a wicked sense of humor.  He‘s a great impersonator of different people.  I mean, he really can be.  But for some reason, he was much more controlled when it came to TV interviews.

OSGOOD:  I think it‘s such a shame if you think that having a sense of humor is something that has to be taken out of a candidate.  Because, I mean, I think the opening—Gore‘s opening in his famous film about global warming, he says, “My name is Al Gore.  I used to be the next president of the United States.”


BESCHLOSS:  A nice way to start.

RUSSERT:  Used to be, yes.

BESCHLOSS:  And if people had seen more of this side of him, it would have helped.


Bob Dole, someone who is well known for his quips and his sense of humor, and yet in the campaigns was labeled a hatchet man when he ran with vice president—Gerald Ford.  And then when he ran for president in 1988, and to the George Herbert Walker Bush, “Stop lying about my record.”  And yet, Dole is someone who has a really warm, wonderful sense of humor.

OSGOOD:  Which he showed—I think if people had seen the Viagra commercials first, then it might have been a different result.

RUSSERT:  You think that‘s the secret?  This is my headline, Osgood says Dole could have won in ‘96.

OSGOOD:  With the Viagra commercial.

RUSSERT:  Right.


OSGOOD:  Well, I just think, in fact, there was one that was not a Viagra commercial.  It was one of the Super Bowl commercials, and Dole was...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Was walking...

OSGOOD:  And this one I think he was talking—he held up—he said, “I have a new spring in my step and a new zest in life.”  And then he holds up a soft drink.  You‘re thinking he‘s going to be talking about Viagra.

But I think he was a naturally funny person.  And it was absolutely drummed out of him.  He was afraid that if he—there‘s a lot of jokes and quips that it would be—he would be thought to be unpresidential.

RUSSERT:  He was on—he holds the record for most appearances on “MEET THE PRESS” in the 60-year history of the program.  But in the final months of the presidential campaign, they took him out of that format.  They didn‘t want him sitting there answering tough questions.


RUSSERT:  They wanted him at a podium, which was not his strength.


RUSSERT:  It‘s just sort of mindless.

When I think back about all of this, Michael, our presidents now have these five or six dinners in Washington where they have to get up and entertain.  And they‘re graded on their performances, and they‘re used—I remember Nancy Reagan used one of those Gridiron dinners, a way to deflect her image as being removed and elitist.  I mean, humor can be extremely beneficial in neutralizing harsh press coverage.

Can‘t it?

BESCHLOSS:  Oh, it sure can.  And that‘s a very good example, Nancy Reagan and others.  And the problem for these presidents is that at least some of these dinners, Gridiron and Alfalfa, are not on TV.

And I guess, you know, it‘s become such a science now that, you know, there‘s a race to hire the best joke writers and the best speechwriters.  So, in a way, you‘re not admiring the president‘s natural performance as being a funny person.  You‘re admiring his ability to hire good people, keep in the right jokes, and connect in with that audience.

RUSSERT:  And now if you cracked a one-liner that wasn‘t scripted, would it be pounced on and people would be jumping all over the candidates?

OSGOOD:  I think people are afraid that you might do that.  But we all make mistakes.  We all say things we didn‘t mean.  And I think that‘s kind of a shame, that you have to—it‘s quite a part from the censorship that‘s imposed on you by your handlers, is the way you censor yourself because you‘re afraid that this might be taken—somebody might take exception to it.

RUSSERT:  Homogenized.

BESCHLOSS:  It‘s true, but if a candidate says something that connects with something that people are worried about, it can kill it.  Dewey, 1948, was on a train.  And he was speaking off the back of the train, and then the man who was running the train by mistake backed the train slightly into the crowd.  And people had to scramble.

Dewey said, you know, “We‘ll have to have that guy shot at sunrise.”  People thought that Dewey was an elitist.  You know, not very much fond of the people.  And they felt that that moment captured it, really hurt him in a big way.

RUSSERT:  “Presidential Courage” by Michael Beschloss.  “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House,” Charles Osgood.

Thank you both for a great hour, talking presidential character, courage and a sense of humor.



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