From The Principal's Office to the Oval Office
of Mark Katz
Presidents Forum Lecture Series
Hobart & William Smith College
Thank you President Gearan for inviting
me to speak at your President's Forum. And thank you
for that very kind and flattering introduction. I can't
tell you what an honor it is to have a former high-ranking
White House spokesman stand before a roomful of people
and lie for you. It's an honor usually reserved for
the President himself.
As President Gearan said, I am a ghostwriter. And it
is a rare occasion it is when a ghostwriter gets to
hear his own words out of his own mouth. In fact, I
have to admit: at the last minute, I chickened out and
hired this handsome actor to deliver these remarks for
Allow me to begin by answering the question put to me
most often: how did you get to write jokes for the president
of the United States? . . .Actually, the question I
get is "how the hell did YOU get to write jokes
for the president of the United States?"
The short answer is, I started out as a wise-ass and
worked my way up. The longer answer is the tale of a
humor career that has taken me from the principal's
office to the Oval Office. More specifically, it involves
three separate but parallel careers in ghostwriting,
politics and humor.
If you'll indulge me, I'd like to briefly trace the
origins of these three careers and explain how they
have all converged in what I do today:
My career in ghostwriting began shortly after I learned
to write. An artist, if you will, is one who encounters
a blank space -- be it a canvas, a blank page or silence
-- and dares to fill it. When I was five, I saw a clean
white wall in my mom's dining room and I dared to fill
it -- with a combination of crayon, magic marker and
Vicks Vapor Rub.
And once I finished my mural, I must have realized others
would not appreciate it as much as me -- which is true
of most of my work. So under it I crafted my first ghostwritten
words: "BY ROBBY." Robby is my younger brother.
At the time, Robby had yet to learn to answer to his
name, no less spell it in emollient. Clearly, I had
not thought this plan through. Once the smell of menthol
hit my parents' room, I was a dead man -- and moment's
later I was literally a tortured artist.
My political career also began early and inauspiciously--
in the third grade -- when I was asked to participate
in a mock debate and address my fellow nine years olds
why they should vote for George McGovern. The vote in
my class that day was 14 to 11 for Nixon, my very first
lesson in the power of incumbency. Yet to this day,
I still believe I might have won that debate if the
Nixon goons hadn't broken into my cubby and stolen my
I was political and partisan from early on -- despite
the fact that I grew up in sleepy suburb of New York
City called Rockland County -- a renown hotbed of social
rest. I remember watching the Watergate hearings the
way most ten year olds watch the World Series -- hooting,
hollering, high-fiving. And I considered the fact that
I was left off Nixon's Enemy List a blatant case of
I got my start in the humor industry the traditional
way: by getting thrown out of classrooms. So I date
my humor career back to the seventh grade when I got
tossed out of my first classroom Ü- and you never
forget your first one.
That was the year my English teacher, Miss Nussbaum,
regularly used an expression that I found well, quizzical.
Whenever we were going to be tested, she announce a
"quizzical" . She'd say thing like:
"Class, tomorrow there will be a spelling quizzical,"
or "Monday there will be a literature quizzical."
Well, one day she announced there would be a comprehensive
vocabulary quizzical. So I raised my hand and asked:
ïMiss Nussbaum, will that be a quizzical -- or
This generosity for sharing my opinions and insights
with the rest of the class was the subject of many parent-teacher
conferences. I remember it was at the end of yet another
of these meetings that mom and dad pointed out that
my prospects in life were grim without the benefit of
a junior high school diploma.
Together, we brainstormed on ways that I might rechannel
this talent, this energy, this naked plea for attention
into something more positive. We decided I should try
to put my humor to the page and write for my humor high
school newspaper. Which is to say that my writing career
began as a plea bargain. I got into writing the same
way Michael Miliken got into public service.
Not long after that, I found my way back to ghostwriting.
In the form of writing speeches for friends running
for student office. I wrote my friend Jon Fisher's visionary
speech in his bid for Sophomore Class President, in
which he vowed to make Clarkstown High School a nuclear
I wrote an alliterative speech of my friend Gary Rohrbacher
in his bid for Homeroom Representative, who said it
was high time people who's last name began with the
letter R had as their advocate someone who was responsible,
respected and resourceful -- not radical, rancorous
Most notably, I wrote David Berkin's impassioned "I
have a dream" speech for Youth Group president
of Temple Beth Shalom, in which he prophesized about
a social circumstance wherein Paul Sturtz -- a shy,
slight and socially awkward boy -- might no longer be
a virgin. And thanks to that speech, David Berkin delivered
Paul to the promised land Ü- with no small help
from Rona Kaufman.
Throughout high school and college, I found myself writing
essays for friends on their college and law school applications.
I'm proud to say that my speeches elected a half dozen
student body presidents and my essays have been admitted
to Harvard, Princeton and Stanford and wait-listed at
I myself attended college -- just down the road from
here at Cornell --and that's where continued to pursue
my interest in politics as a government major, wrote
for a humor column for the daily newspaper and spent
a semester in Washington.
I was a sophomore in college when I cast my first presidential
vote for Walter Mondale Ü and that was my second
painful lesson in the powers of incumbency. I was a
Democrat just coming of age and already it was midnight
again in America. But it wasn't until I graduated that
I got first real political experience. I took a position
with our own Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. There,
I learned the rudimentary lessons of workaday politics
and how to fix a very dry martini.
But because I studied government in college, I was anxious
to work on a presidential campaign. That to me seemed
liked working on the front lines of political history.
Although ten years later, it's quite evident that the
race between Mike Dukakis and George Bush was a contest
to decide who history would come to regard as the slightly
And that is of course where I met Mark Gearan. . . .
. .By the way, if you think it is odd going to a college
with a president looks like a first year graduate student,
imagine what it's like to join a national presidential
campaign whose press secretary looks barely old enough
to have a paper route.
And when I arrived at the Dukakis headquarters and they
saw my impressive resume, my experience in journalism
and my honors thesis on political media, they realized
they had found the exact person they were looking for.
The person they needed to go to the newsstand at 5:30
in the morning, clip out all the articles news articles
and have it Xeroxed and distributed to the senior staff
by 7. . . .Also, I was encouraged to bring hot coffee
and a selection of fresh pastries.
I did that for about a month until the next over-eager
schmuck showed up to join the campaign. ....In fact,
I think it was Lloyd Bentsen. The important thing was
I was able to move up the ladder. Next I was given the
job of writing the campaign's press releases. Press
releases are pretty much straightforward who/what/when/where
journalism but soon I found a way to incorporate some
of my creative writing skills. I started punching them
up with inventive "sound bites." Cleverisms
designed to quoted in the next day's paper.
The head of communications, the late great Kirk O'Donnell,
took notice when some of these stray sound bites started
showing up in the papers and at the end of the primary
campaign and before the general election, I was put
on staff and put to work in the communications office.
In May of 1987, I was placed on a 3-man squad called
the "Rapid Response Team." Our job to churn
out responses to the daily influxes of the Bush campaign's
political hand grenades and character assassinations.
OK. I can see some of you are laughing. You heard me
right. The Dukakis Campaign "Rapid Response Team."
Those of you who recall the sad history of the Dukakis
campaign will not be surprised to learn that by mid-June,
we dropped the word "Rapid" from the title.
By early September, we dropped "Response."
By the end of the campaign, we were pretty much just
a team .....of three despondent guys.
My job on that team was to add the humor to the official
campaign statements and debate prep material. Ladies
and gentlemen, you are looking at the guy who made Mike
Dukakis so funny.
You may be interested to know that also on that team
was a fellow named George Stephanopoulos. He was the
guy who made Mike Dukakis so short and so Greek. And
he did a hell of a job. I know he's gone on to bigger
and better things -- but back when I was working shoulder
to shoulder with him every day, he was a punk like the
rest of us. He was better known as George "Stuffin'envelopes."
As you can imagine, this is still not an easy entry
to explain on my resume: Writing rapid response and
humor for a candidate known as the most humorless and
non-responsive in modern electoral history.
The fact is, I wrote hundreds of jokes and helped churn
out hundred of responses. All for naught. Why? Because
writing humor for Mike Dukakis is like being staff photographer
for the Wall Street Journal.
Yet to this day, when people say the Dukakis campaign
was "a joke" I can't help but feel a little
As history buffs will recall, Michael Dukakis never
became president of the United States. So from there,
I went on to a series of writing jobs at communication
strategy firms and advertising agencies. I wrote ads
and engaged in "message-making" for a variety
of products, people, industries and ideas. Doing for
them what I did for Mike Dukakis -- as ridiculous as
Today, the toughest question anyone can ask me is what
I do for a living. It's the very same question that
dogs Mr. Blackwell. The best description I've come up
with is that I am a free-lance humor consultant. In
1993 I founded something called the Sound Bite Institute,
a one-man think tank for creative writing projects and
soon after was appointed its resident scholar by a slim
The Sound Bite Institute actually started the day I
was fired from an advertising agency that just lost
one of the biggest accounts in the worldCoca- Cola.
I remember the day well because it was the Tuesday before
Thanksgiving of 1992. The cruelest part was that this
was as three days before my 10 year high school reunion.
As I was sitting in my creative director's office as
he was explaining to me that I no longer worked there,
I remember thinking, "Oh crap, I have to go my
reunion as an unemployed person."
That was the day I became a free-lance writer. And it
was right about the time Bill Clinton was elected president
of the United States. Just two difficult months after
that, I got a call from a guy named Mark Gearan. He
told me America's new Ambassador to the United Nations
had been asked to give a funny speech at the Gridiron
Club (an annual white tie Washington press dinner) and
asked if I was available to help. I told Mark that I
was incredibly available.
I worked closely with Ambassador Albright to write her
speech which was very well received by the press in
the room and the president himself, who also gave a
speech that night. When I was introduced to the president
as the person who had worked with Madeline Albright,
he asked if I would write for him the next time he had
to give a funny speech, which as it turns out was the
White House Correspondents Dinner just a few weeks away.
And when the president asks you to do something, there
is only one answer: how much money are we talking about?
This was my introduction to presidential humor as a
line of work. But before I continue, let me provide
just a little bit of historical perspective that I've
gained since: Humor historians tell us that John Kennedy
single-handedly raised the stakes on presidential humor.
Until Camelot, Presidents had only to live up to the
standard of wit set by Calvin Coolidge. Today they are
measured against JFK's, the man who overwhelmed the
ardently underwhelmed nation of France by dismissing
himself merely as the man who accompanied Jacqueline
Kennedy to Paris. In fact, he broke the old record of
winning over France set by the Nazis in 1939.
That brand of charm lay dormant for nearly twenty years
until Ronald Reagan returned self-directed laughter
to the Oval Office. (Let's call the Carter years a deep
Ronald Reagan's smiling eyes and self-effacing humor
made him simply impossible not to like. No matter how
much I tried. With a single remark, President Reagan
inoculated himself against reports of his lethargic
pace and penchant for naps: "Hard work never killed
anyone -- but I figure, why take the chance?"
What these presidents had was an innate and natural
sense of humor. But more importantly, they understood
how to employ it to great effect. They knew that their
sense of humor -- their sense of perspective and self-awareness
-- was what people liked about them most. And likability
is valuable political capital. Because apart from heartfelt
political ideology, people are more likely to support
people they like. This phenomenon, by the way, is closely
related to the undoing of Newt Gingrich and the ascent
of John McCain. Tom Delay, consider yourself warned.
Back in 1995, Republican strategists used to wonder
why people took an instant dislike to Newt. The answer
of course, was that it saved time.
So with the value of humor so great, it's no wonder
that occupants of the Oval Office have added "humor
consultants" to their arsenal of experts. The modern
collection of wise men and wise women has been expanded
to include a wise-ass.
Personally, I think it's only fair that the political
world has raided the world of humor. Because America's
opinion of its President is shaped more by the one-liners
crafted for late-night comics than through the press
releases issued by staffers. Which explains why most
politicians have come to fear laughter; more often than
not, it comes at their expense.
My job is to remind them that humor can be their friend.
The trick is not just to steal the format but co-opt
the target as well. Whenever I work with someone for
the first time, I find myself retelling my favorite
anecdote from presidential humor history. John Kennedy's
1960 Gridiron speech.
President Kennedy just won the election and the world
was still whispering that his father bought it for him.
In front of the Gridiron Club, a collection of the 300
most important journalists and statesmen in Washington,
John Kennedy stood up and read this fake telegram from
his father dated the week of his razor thin and -- some
say "stolen" -- victory over Richard Nixon:
"Jack, don't spend one dollar more than is necessary.
I'll be dammed if I'm going to pay for a landslide."
Then I ask them to think about this: Had anyone else
in that room read that same fake telegram, Kennedy would
have been humiliated. The story would have been retold
and retold, each time at Kennedy's expense. Instead,
the story has become lore and its intended effect has
lasted for decades.
I think there is a more specific framework for evaluating
the role of humor for Bill Clinton. Exercising the license
of humor, this president has conceded things in his
humorous speeches that he has never acknowledged anywhere
Consider these examples:
Bill Clinton never called a press conference to concede
that his administration got off to a rocky start: despite
fiascoes such as the gays in the military, a rejected
economic stimulus package and a $400 haircut. But when
his first appearance at the White House Correspondence
coincided with his first one hundred days in office,
the President joked to the White House press corps:
"I don't think I'm doing that bad. On the 100th
day after his inauguration, William Henry Harrison was
already dead for 68 days."
He never admitted he used the Lincoln Bedroom improperly
but in the spring of 96, in the heat of the re-election
campaign, he did give a wink to the subject with this
line: "the bad news is, our only child is going
off to college. The good news is, it opens up another
Of course, the most interesting laboratory of presidential
wit came in 1998 and 1999 as a genuine constitutional
crisis coincided with these annual Washington humor
dinners. This is a topic that could well constitute
an honors thesis but I will limit this analysis to two
jokes that I think are pretty remarkable. In their own
The first came in the middle of the famous media feeding
frenzy of 1998 when millions of Americans were first
exposed to the name "Drudge" and his brand
of journalism. As you may recall, there was a lot of
speculation about stained dresses and other sordid topics.
Some news organizations, in their haste, printed details
that had not been properly sourced and had to rescind
them with an apology to their readers. That heartened
the White House some and resulted in the president saying
this line at the 1998 White House Correspondents Dinner.
"I hardly have time to read the newspapers anymore.
Most days I just skim the retractions."
That was a great joke in its moment in time. It took
a fair shot at news organizations that had abandoned
the standard practices of accurate reporting. However,
as the weeks and months unfolded, we learned much of
what had been retracted turned out to be true, or at
least true enough. In retrospect, that joke is an example
of humor being used to propagate a falsehood -- and
a joke that I was once very proud of, I have come to
look back upon with some regret.
I'll be honest with you: With regard to the impeachment
of William Jefferson Clinton, I will admit that I found
the president's actions as troubling as most anyone
else -- except maybe the House Republicans. I guess
I'm from the old school: I prefer the days when presidents
used the Oval Office to raise money and had sex in the
THE SECOND JOKE that I want to bring to your attention
came after his impeachment and in a moment in his administration
when the president was required to demonstrate his contrition
for his behavior. At the Radio & TV Dinner of 1999,
one of his first public appearances in the aftermath
of his acquittal in the Senate, the president had this
to say about how he felt about standing before a room
full of the same Washington journalists who had hounded
him for a year:
I know you can't really laugh about this. I mean, the
events of the last year have been quite serious. If
the Senate vote had gone the other way, I wouldn't be
here right now. . . . .I DEMAND A RECOUNT!
Even today, I find that joke absolutely breathtaking
in its courage, -- audacity really -- and in the set
of incredible set of circumstances that made it relevant
in the first place. I don't think you'll find another
joke like in the annals of presidential history and
I hope you never will.This past month marked the swansong
humor season of the Clinton administration and while
we lacked the compelling backdrop of impeachment, we
managed to find a few topics that proved fruitful.
In fact, this is a very good moment to mention something
I want to make clear. These speeches are not the work
of any one person they involve a select group of smart,
funny people, not the least of whom is the President
of the United States of America. On all of these speeches
I've worked closely with a revolving group of White
House speechwriters, press aides and even a handful
of other professional comedy writers to prepare this
material. Let me mention two people in particular you
should know about: Jeff Shesol is the deputy director
of speechwriting who's collaborated with me for the
last two years on these speeches and who is an accredited
humorist and historian in his own right And Jim Kennedy
is a very sharp deputy press secretary who always contributes
I am the point person and I describe my job as running
the Comedy War Room. And this year, I am proud to say,
the Comedy War Room had a banner year.
I brought a few clips of the president's speeches from
last month's Radio & TV Correspondents Dinner and
the White House Correspondents Dinner. Suddenly, I feel
like I'm the Tonight Show. Can we roll the clips?
The Final Days
As you just saw:
These speeches are a lot of fun and a great opportunity
for the president and pundits to take the night off
and laugh at themselves. But Speeches like the Gridiron
Dinner and the White House Correspondents' Dinner are
exercises in what I call appropriate humor. These dinners
assemble the most important public officials and opinion-leaders
in Washington. So if the president or the Vice President
-- stands before them and makes a wildly inappropriate
joke, nuclear missiles could be upgraded to DEFCOM three.
The point is, there are lots of things a president cannot
say. I understand that. The problem is: anyone who writes
humor does it because their brain that cannot repress
the wildly inappropriate. If we could, we would have
gone to law school like the rest of our friends.
So over the years as I worked on these speeches for
President Clinton, my brain started coming up with the
things the President could never say in a million years.
Things that could create international incidents or
a constitutional crisis. Things so thermo-nuclear, I
dare not repeat any of them to you tonight out of concern
for YOUR safety.
Nevertheless, my list of things President Clinton could
never say grew and grew. Then one day I started wondering
what Napoleon could never say. Or the words that never
passed Attila the Hun's lips. What Marceu Marceu might
say, given the chance to speak his mind. That's when
I had the idea that gave rise to a book I wrote a few
years ago. It is no longer for sale so keep your $8.50
in your pockets but feel free to peruse the contents
for free on my website, www.soundbiteinstitute.com
The book is 350 quotes assigned to the great, near-great
and greatly deluded characters of history. I'd like
to read a few of my personal favorites.
I first realized I was blessed with above average intelligence
when my classmates began referring to me as "Einstein."
Am I crazy or is it hot in here?
I'm sorry Luke. I had no idea you were serving
fish. I'll just change it into a sauvignon blanc.
(announcing the Spanish Inquisition)
A crueler, more gentile nation.
how come we can put a man on the moon but we can't
invent a decent, orange-flavored instant beverage?
ello-hay oviets, say. I ant-way my ayment-pay Wright,
Orville in the event of water landing, your seat cushion
is a seat cushion.
No ma, we're just good friends.
Curse that count de Custarde, I must invent a dessert
of my own Liberty, Lady the only guys I ever meet are
tired, wretched or poor!
So, as you can see, when I am not writing for the President
to say, I'm busy writing for Napoleon, Plato and the
Statue of Liberty. And for me, the line between reality
and fantasy gets blurrier all the time.
But both are exercises in my favorite aspect of writing
humor: the license it gives you to push the boundaries
of what can be said, what unspoken truth can be acknowledged
and what error can be conceded
It was under the license of humor that for eight years
I was granted the immunity to walk into the White House
and tell the man widely acknowledged as the most powerful
person on earth a bunch of jokes with punchlines premised
upon his faults and foul-ups.
To his face, I told the kind of jokes most often spread
behind backs. Then I recommended he say them himself,
out loud, in front of the entire Washington establishment
and the White House press corps. It's how I came to
find myself standing in the Oval Office, surrounded
by high-level aides, looking directly in the eyes of
the leader of the free world and listening to myself
say: "Mr. President, I urge you to make the 'cheeseburger'
But I think the defining moment of this entire experience
happened the day I introduced my parents to the President
of the United States. I got them into a Saturday morning
radio address he gave just an hour after we finished
a prep session for a speech that evening. And I got
them in for no charge, which was a very nice gesture.
And after I made the introductions, Bill Clinton does
one of the nicest things a president can do for a person:
he starts talking me up to my parents. Well, after he
finally finishes lavishing me with praise -- how funny
I am, how much fun he has with these speeches -- eventually
he runs out of adulation.
So there's this silence. And then my mom, unimpressed,
says to the President of the United States:
"You know, you just complimented Mark for the same
things I used to spank him for."
When I regained consciousness and had time to reflect
on that exchange, I realized its significance:
Decades since being first cast out from Miss Nussbaum's
class to the principal's office, another vaunted authority
figure -- the President of the United States -- had
summoned me for those very same set of skills. And I
was vindicated at long last.
Pause for applause. Thank you.
Now that I've arrived at the end of these remarkable
eight years and amazing vantage point I've had on the
presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, I only have
one real regret. I regret the advice I offered him the
very first time I wrote a speech for him. I suggested
that he visualize everyone in the audience sitting in
Looking back, that was probably a mistake.
In all seriousness, its been a pleasure to recount the
highlights of this adventure for you. Thank you for
inviting me and thank you for your attention and I'll
be happy to answer any questions you may have.