Politicians can be funny. No, really.
By: Peter Arnold ‘82

 

The Landon Alumni Board recently elected Peter Arnold ’82 as its new president. Peter has been on the Alumni Board since 2016 and last year he endowed The Peter Swinehart Chair in Literature & Composition.

Peter has been in politics for 30 years. He was a White House speechwriter, Congressional staffer and in 1998 founded his own lobbying firm. With the election over, we asked Peter to share some funny memories about politics.

Peter lives in Bethesda and has two daughters at National Cathedral School. He can be reached at PArnold@Arnold-Consulting.com.

Two months after graduating from Dartmouth, Vice President George HW Bush asked me to join his White House speechwriting staff. Occasionally I’m asked how someone could land this job right after graduation and my standard reply is to ask if they want the truth or a really good lie.

In this case, the truth is prosaic. I was in the right place at the right time and could start immediately. The speechwriter whom I succeeded, E. William Cattan, Jr., was a Dartmouth alumnus who had been a wonderful mentor during my freshman year.

This job began a 30+ year odyssey in American politics during which I worked in The White House, on Capitol Hill and at four Republican National Conventions, one of which involved writing for Bo Derek and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Together, these experiences include enough anecdotes to sustain a full season of West Wing.

President Frank Underwood was right when he said about Washington, “Nobody’s a Boy Scout. Not even Boy Scouts.” For better or worse, the sheer power of today’s government drives massive efforts to influence policy and political campaigns. With so many decisions affecting billions of dollars in commerce, it’s inevitable that companies, unions, and other interested parties will advocate with increasing ferocity.

That said, if today’s political divisions are deeper than 30 years ago, it’s only by degree. There’s an old saying about the good old days: “I was there. Where were they?” Political fighting during the 1980s and 1990s was ruthless by any standard as a new breed of media-savvy consultants honed their skills.

Going back further, press during Abraham Lincoln’s administration (Northern newspapers, no less) openly called for his assassination. During Colonial times, newspapers levied personal attacks against our Founding Fathers with a level of nastiness that would make Harry Truman blush.

That said, this will not be a diatribe on politics. Interested readers can find plenty of political commentary on blogs and cable networks, argued by advocates demonstrating their months of experience. But though much of modern politics evokes dystopian scenes from Hunger Games, I’ve been lucky enough to see just enough humor to keep politics tolerable.

Among my favorites:

Al Gore (yes, that Al Gore) could be funny

During the 2000 Presidential campaign, one of the most commonly used descriptions of Al Gore was “wooden.” His Presidential debate performances had all the spontaneity of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But in reality, Gore had a decent sense of humor. At least occasionally. On Election Day 1988, I was part of a White House contingent flying from Washington, DC to Houston to be with the Bush family. Our flight out of National Airport included a stop in Nashville and sure enough, the final two passengers to board were Al and Tipper Gore.

Our group burst into a roar and Sen. Gore, surveying the elephant hats and Bush signs, said without missing a beat, “I’ve heard Republicans were moving south but this is ridiculous.” He then turned to Tipper and said loudly, “Honey, when we land, the first thing I’m going to do is fire our travel agent.”

So could George H.W. Bush

Vice President George Bush and Peter
in the West Wing, 1986

During my time with then-Vice President Bush, I heard him tell literally dozens of jokes, some possibly not suitable for Landon’s website. Often his best lines were unintentional including his pre-election comment, “The undecideds could go one way or another.”

In late 1988, SNL’s Dana Carvey came to the White House for lunch with President-elect Bush and afterwards they joined our staff holiday party. Carvey explained that he came up with his Bush impression by mixing John Wayne and Mr. Rogers. President-elect Bush then did his imitation of Dana Carvey’s imitation, including wild hand gestures. Fortunately, there were no iPhones back then.

But my favorite Bush story is one he told a group of us about his and Barbara’s first holiday in Texas in the 1940s. Friends invited them to a party and pushed the future President to drink several cups of something with the potency of jet fuel. When one of us asked how the party went after that, Mr. Bush waved his hand and said, “Go ask Barbara. 40 years later and I still have to take her word for it.”

Ronald Reagan was engaging even when his joke bombed

My White House office was directly above the Reagan speechwriting team and I often walked downstairs to discuss upcoming events. (Sidelight: My office was also directly below Oliver North and Fawn Hall. Trust me that we younger staffers noticed when she walked past.)

One day I was meeting with Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson, who was famous for drafting the President’s 1987 Berlin Wall address (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down…”). The President was speaking to a group of Marines in Parris Island and a feed was piped into Peter’s office.

President Reagan began with a joke about the Marine Corps and after delivering the punch line, he looked up, waiting for laughs. But those Marines just stood at attention. There was no response, just spit-and-polish silence. Reagan wasn’t fazed. After a moment, he cocked his head and went back to his speech, saying, “Well, I guess some of you may have heard that one before.”

Even the Soviets joked about U.S. politics

Barbara Bush once told a group of us about dinner with the Gorbachevs at the Soviet Embassy. During post-dinner entertainment, a Russian opera singer reached for high notes with visible passion, which caused President Bush, seated next to Raisa Gorbachev, to say through an interpreter, “I think I’m falling in love.”

“Be careful,” Mrs. Gorbachev replied, “Remember what happened to Gary Hart.”

Humor in uniform

As a career military officer, the late Col. Bob Friendewald, who commanded the Army Corps of Engineers Portland District, was not a politician. But he was a public official and more important had a great sense of humor, both of which are enough to merit inclusion here.

Col. Friedenwald once told a group of us a story about driving in a remote area of Oregon with the Army’s Chief of Operations. Coming around a curve, they came upon a small fire near the highway. Since fires had potentially deadly consequences, he stopped the car and the two used their limited materials to extinguish the fire.  This included running back and forth with a construction helmet to get water from a roadside ditch.

After extinguishing the fire, the two were sweating profusely. They departed down the curved road but soon spotted another fire and farther down, another.

As Col. Friedenwald noted with a sigh, “That’s when I realized the fires were controlled burns set by Oregon officials to clear areas around the highway."