• U.S.

The Nation: The Ridicule Problem

4 minute read

Gerald Ford left Washington last week in his distinctive way. After a convivial evening at the White House, he wished guests “a merry Christmas and a merry—uh—a happy New Year.” Then, as he was walking toward his helicopter, his legs got tangled up in his dogs’ leashes. A day later, he was waiting on the ski-lift line at Vail, Colo., when one of the chairs swung around and almost knocked him over. Two days later, he took a spill on the slopes. Many skiers do the same, of course, but Ford’s spill was duly recorded by cameras and splashed across TV screens and front pages.

Such incidents not only received nationwide coverage, but inspired some new additions to a recent phenomenon: the Ford joke. As an accident-prone President with an amiable but bumbling style, Ford has become a straight man for columnists, gagwriters and partygoers. Ford has “become the country’s leading target for jokes,” Show Biz Chronicler Earl Wilson wrote last week. “Gone was all reverence for the No. 1 position in the land.” The Washington Post’s Nicholas von Hoffman called Ford “President Klutz,” “Mr. Ten Thumbs,” “the Great Flub-Dub” and “Old Bungle-Foot,” all in a single column, and wondered whether he would become “the first President to be laughed out of office.”

Comedians ask: “How can a man who works in an Oval Office paint himself into so many corners?” They tell audiences about “the Jerry Ford doll”—wind it up and it lurches into something. The jokes are even spreading abroad. On an Israeli TV show, “President Chevrolet” greets some Israelis at the White House by saying how pleased he is to “welcome this distinguished group of Egyptians to the Kremlin.” Other jokes making the rounds:

> The only thing between Nelson Rockefeller and the presidency is a banana peel.

> What is the President Ford tongue twister? Answer: Hello.

> What is the Ford economic plan? Answer: Buy a bigger car and leave it in the garage.

> The President was loath to help New York during its fiscal crisis because he has bad memories from the city’s great blackout; he was trapped for six hours on an escalator.

> The Secret Service has already ruled out any possibility that Ford will toss out the first ball of the baseball season next spring. Says a Secret Service spokesman: “There is too much danger of his being beaned.”

> The President pierced his left hand with a salad fork at a White House luncheon celebrating Tuna Salad Day. Alert Secret Service agents seized the fork and wrestled it to the ground.*

> Ford announced that he has written his own campaign slogan: IF HE’S SO DUMB, HOW COME HE’S PRESIDENT?”

The cracks are hardly sidesplitters. In fact, most humorous material on Ford is visual, not verbal. On NBC’S comedy show Saturday Night, Actor Chevy Chase often opens the program by stumbling into his lectern. Says Chase: “Ford is so inept that the quickest laugh is the cheapest laugh, and the cheapest is the physical joke.”

Betty Ford recalls that when Jerry called at her home for their first date, he knocked over a vase filled with fresh roses. Though Ford is an excellent skier and swimmer, he has a weak knee from an old football injury, and that could cause some of his pratfalls. Moreover, the President could conceivably begin to win sympathy for his inadvertent clumsiness, especially if the jokes grow too cruel, as they are on the verge of doing. Nonetheless, the ridicule factor is fast becoming yet another worry for Ford’s strategists. Jim Squires, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, makes the point that Ford is in trouble because his physical and verbal blunders coincide with “a series of political and policy blunders that leave no doubt they’re all being pulled off by the same guy.” Frets an influential Republican politician on the fast-circulating Ford jokes: “I think they are hurting him. No one wants an image as a buffoon, least of all a President.”

* There are several variations on this joke, including the accident in Hartford, Conn., when Ford’s Lincoln was hit by a Buick. Alert Secret Service agents seized the Buick and wrestled it to the ground. When the President got out to see what had happened, he stuck his thumb in his eye. Alert Secret Service agents seized the thumb and wrestled it to the ground. When Ford miscalculated and bumped his head in a Florida swimming pool, the pool was also wrestled to the ground.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com