From The Principal's Office to the Oval Office

Remarks of Mark Katz
President’s Forum Lecture Series
Hobart & William Smith College
May 2000

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 me.

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 notes.

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 age discrimination.

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 a testicle?'

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 power.

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 or racketeering.
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 Yale.

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 larger asterisk.

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 proud.

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 that sounds.

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 one-vote margin.
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 coma.)

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 else.

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 bedroom."

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 right:

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 Lincoln bedroom.

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 funny material.

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,

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.

Einstein, Albert
I first realized I was blessed with above average intelligence when my classmates began referring to me as "Einstein."

Koresh, David
Am I crazy or is it hot in here?

Christ, Jesus
I'm sorry Luke. I had no idea you were serving fish. I'll just change it into a sauvignon blanc.

Queen Isabella:
(announcing the Spanish Inquisition)
A crueler, more gentile nation.

Armstrong, Neil
how come we can put a man on the moon but we can't invent a decent, orange-flavored instant beverage?

Ames, Aldrich
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' joke."

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 their underwear.

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.

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