LEAVE IT TO BOB DOLE. The man who lost his 1996 presidential run largely for looking like somebody's grandfather has long since reinvented himself as a wacky TV talk show quipster and pitchman for both Pepsi and Viagra. With Great Presidential Wit (and its predecessor Great Political Wit), Dole seeks to extend his new humor franchise into the book publishing world.
Not so fast, Mr. Politician.
Great Presidential Wit (I Wish I was in the Book)
by Bob Dole (Simon & Schuster, $19.95)
My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook by George W. Bush
by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner (Three Rivers Press, $9.95, paperback)
OK, at least Dole can blame his source material this time out. Being a funny guy isn't among the list of requirements to serve as this nation's chief executive, as this book ably (and endlessly) points out. Dole's writing style, which seems largely borrowed from Readers Digest's many columns of "amusing anecdotes," doesn't help matters. The author further compounds the problem through his unwise decision to include material on every U.S. president, which means that more than half the bits are straight historical anecdotes about live wires such as James Knox Polk and Millard Fillmore. Fun, fun, fun.
As Dole clearly relishes his role of history buff, it's hard to understand why he includes material from the humorous speeches modern presidents are required to deliver at annual events such as the White House Correspondents' Dinner. These prepared bits are often very funny (Bill Clinton was especially adept at delivering his lines), but the jokes are invariably the work of professional speechwriters, rather than the presidents themselves.
There are a few exceptions to the no-fun rule. Take John Kennedy's punning response when asked why he was addressing media questions by reading prepared answers off index cards ("Because I'm not a textual deviant"). Calvin Coolidge's annoyance with small talk also provides a few gems. (A woman who commented vacuously on the weather by saying, "I wonder if it will ever stop raining?" was rewarded with the brusque reply, "It always has.") And you have to love Abraham Lincoln's cutting response to a rude job-seeker; his recently deceased chief of customs hadn't yet been buried when the supplicant asked if he could possibly take his place. "It's fine with me if the undertaker doesn't mind," Lincoln snapped.
The concept that the critics of presidents are more consistent humor producers than the chief execs themselves is supported by My First Presidentiary, a goofy set of words and pictures reputedly created by the new guy in Washington (but actually the work of Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner of the Web magazine Modern Humorist). The theme of the jokes is fairly predictable, drawing on the widely accepted notion that George W. isn't the sharpest pencil in the box. The authors make up for this deficiency by wielding a sharp pencil of their own: The colored pencil drawings included throughout are both funny and skillful (my favorite being the rendering of the new $20 bill with a portrait of the Presidents Bush Jr. and Sr.).
Also explored in this mock-childlike scrapbook of words and photos are Bush's rivalry with his brother, Jeb, and his extreme reliance on aides such as Vice President Richard "Uncle Dick" Cheney. The best bit comes when little Georgie is unable to quite differentiate between radical icon Mumia Abu-Jamal and basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who are, in fact, completely different people). Funny stuff, and at $9.95, a reasonably priced gift for that sulky, vote fraud-obsessed Democrat in your life.