Of Presidents and Impersonators

Nicholas J. Cull, University of Southern California

2 May 2017


One of the most startling of President Trump’s many foibles is his vociferous dislike of his being impersonated and specifically of the impersonation done by Alec Baldwin on the long-running NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live.  In the small hours of Sunday 3 December 2016, smarting from the previous evening’s offering he tweeted “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad”

In similar vein, after a whole day of reflection, the evening of 15 January 2017 produced: “@NBCNews is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC.  Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!”  For a media historian the spat raises the question of the history of presidential parody and how previous presidents have reacted to impersonation.  Trump is unusual.  Most past presidents had the good sense to ignore mockery and some have embraced impersonation.  Ronald Reagan reportedly really enjoyed the work of Rich Little and Barack Obama joined in the joke with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s ‘anger translator’ routine but the best example of a president embracing his impersonation is that of John F. Kennedy and his reaction to the impersonation by Vaughan Meader.

To place Meader’s Kennedy in context, it was pioneering for its time.  While there is a long history of satirical representations of American presidents, which have included the unflattering and the bizarre (Theodore Roosevelt was lampooned in stage impersonations by the blackface/minstrel Vaudeville performer Lew Dockstader and depicted in similar fashion in political cartoons) the electronic media, were more restrained.  Sitting presidents, like the figure of Christ, were not directly represented in motion pictures or in broadcast media.  Classic Hollywood films like Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Mission to Moscow (1943) depicted Franklin Roosevelt only with coy over-the-shoulder angles and his distinct voice (both these examples used a Canadian actor named Jack Young).  The age of television built a greater sense of familiarity with the president and a desire to know more which was unmet by the restrained habits of the media of the time.  The taboo was broken in the months following the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The age of the broadcast presidential impersonation dawned on the White House without warning in November 1962.  It was presidential advisor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who raised the alarm.  He was driving to work one morning and thought he was listening to a White House press conference.  A journalist asked whether the president believed that a Jew could be president.  To Schlesinger’s dismay distinct Boston drawl replied to the effect that while that was possible ‘I could not vote for him because I am a Catholic.’  Narrowly avoiding an accident Schlesinger sped on to the White House, made some preliminary investigations and fired off a memo to the president warning darkly of Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds panic.  The broadcast – it emerged – was a track from a comedy album created by a nightclub performer from Maine called Vaughn Meader and entitled First Family.  The humor was gentle by today’s standards with many jokes turning on the idea of the president being depicted in ordinary situations.  JFK is heard discussing the allocation of his kids’ bath toys in the manner of Pentagon appropriations, stopping at a highway gas station with his entire motorcade and asking for green stamps, and discussing movies with his wife.  His preference is for Hercules.   While Kennedy’s team were appalled and made plans to contact the Federal Communications Commission to look into somehow banning its broadcast, Kennedy relished the humor.  He bantered with journalists about the impersonation (joking that it sounded more like brother Ted so he was the angry one); he bought multiple copies of the album to send out as Christmas gifts and on one occasion explained that he was the speaker only because Vaughn Meader couldn’t make it.  Neither he nor anyone else at the White House revealed that Jacqueline Kennedy was not amused by the impersonation of her and supported some kind of intervention against the record.

From Meader’s point of view the president’s good natured endorsement gave a welcome boost to what was already shaping up to be a stratospherically successful record.  It was soon the fastest selling record in history to that date.  Meader became a national celebrity and eagerly embarked on a sequel.  But his success was oddly bound to that of the president.  His career never recovered from the shock of the assassination of JFK in 1963.  He attempted various come-backs, including in the 1990s a record of the bible themed sketches in which God has a Kennedy accent.  He died, largely forgotten, in 2004.  The Meader accent lives on in the vocal performance of Dan Castellaneta as the mayor of Springfield, “Diamond Joe” Quimby in The Simpsons.

The relationship of Americans to the image of their president has changed radically in the 55 years since Meader’s First Family, and the jokes on SNL are far more barbed than could be imagined in those distant days.  So much of the veil is now missing.  Whereas a half century ago discussing of womanizing or exotic sexual tastes would be conducted only in whispers today we hear recordings of the president’s own voice bragging about lewd and illegal acts and allegations of shenanigans with Russian prostitutes are freely discussed in the media.  This said, sound advice for a satirized individual remains the same.  One does better sharing the joke.


Nicholas J. Cull is a Professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  He is president of IAMHIST.  His archive-based study of Meader’s First Family  and the White House reaction appeared as ‘No Laughing Matter: Vaughn Meader, the Kennedy Administration and Presidential Impersonation on the radio’ The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 3, August 1997, pp. 383-400

http://annenberg.usc.edu/faculty/communication/nicholas-j-cull


 

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