Tragedy, Farce, and the US Presidency (Brooke Daley)

In Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte he wrote, “All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”[1] A historical fact that demonstrates this idea is the American Presidency of the mid-1970s. The resignation of President Richard Nixon was a national tragedy for the United States. After Nixon’s shameful resignation, Gerald Ford became the new president. Ford expected his Presidency to centre on national reconciliation. In 1974 he said, “The political lesson of Watergate is this: Never again must America allow an arrogant, elite guard of political adolescents to by-pass the regular party organization and dictate the terms of a national election.”[2] Instead his administration was defined by comedy.

Starting in 1975 Ford was impersonated by Chevy Chase in a Saturday Night Live (Season1 episode 4, 1975) opening. Chase portrays the newly sworn in President as a clumsy brain damaged fool. Chase’s Ford can’t even get through an entire sentence without knocking something over or stuttering. To highlight the ridicule, text across the screen reads, “This is not the President of the United States”. Chevy Chase stated, “Ford is so inept that the quickest laugh is the cheapest laugh, and the cheapest is the physical joke.”[3]

In politics, humour is a very difficult attack to defend against. If you ignore it, it only continues. If you acknowledge it, it gives the attacker creditability. Ford chose to co-opt Chase’s humour and even learned how to use humour against his political opponents.

In the 1976 elections Ford used comedy as a political weapon and said, “Ronald Regan doesn’t dye his hair- he’s just prematurely orange.”[4] Eventually Ford even wrote a book about the subject titled Humor and Presidency.

Yet as if to prove Marx’s point, in two short years Chase’s attack and Ford’s defence turned the American Presidency from tragedy into farce.

[1] Karl Marx, “Chapter 1” The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm

[2]Seth S. King, “Ford Calls Campaign Unit An Arrogant, Elite Guard”, The New York Times 31 March 1974.

[3]“The Nation: The Ridicule Problem”, The New York Times 5 January 1976.

[4]Benedict Evans, “What the Donald Shares with The Ronald”, The New York Times 1 June 2016.

2 comments

  1. I knew little about Ford’s presidency, but this sketch is much like the ones in which Alec Baldwin impersonates Trump. I wonder what is the impersonator’s intention when mocking an important figure. Is it ultimately more beneficial than detrimental for the person being attacked?

  2. With SNL’s long line of mocking presidents is it possible that a parallel can be drawn to the two as mutual beneficial if there is an understanding and respect of one another? Though it isn’t from SNL, Obama did use Key & Peele’s “anger translator” during the correspondents dinner which was an extremely positive use of Comedy in the presidents favor. And these performances make clear how the public generally see the president so as if to give insight.

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