Presidents Day is my favorite holiday for a number of reasons both personal and patriotic: it’s the best possible time for me to rattle off all of our presidents in order, a skill which along with my modest-in-number-but expertly-rendered card tricks represents my greatest social attribute. Also, it’s just fun to think about Presidents! Who was good and who was the worst before Trump? Which presidencies look better with the passage of time? Who would have made a better president than the ones we ended up with?
It’s also an excellent time to trot out my collection of arcane, long out-of-print political literature (my third great social attribute). This is one of my absolute favorites, and one I think quite appropriate to the occasion: legendary former congressman Mo Udall’s 1988 memoir-cum-overview of American political humor Too Funny to Be President. It’s legitimately hilarious and slyly subversive.
The progressive giant Udall was in trouble in Washington from the moment he arrived from Arizona and set his suitcase down. His bald challenge of the entrenched seniority system as a freshman congressman in 1961 incensed tyrannical speaker Samuel Rayburn, who was once characterized by Larry L. King as: “A man congenitally offended by a single word, while grunts and smoke signals will do.” Udall’s early full-throated opposition of Vietnam made him a headache to LBJ, and his unflagging support of Civil Rights and environmental protections raised hackles in all directions. “This job has done wonders for my paranoia,” he once remarked. “Now I have real enemies.” But it really wasn’t so. He was too funny to be unloved.
Cracking wise was Udall’s default mode throughout a storied career as first a legislator, and later a candidate for national office, when he finished second to Jimmy Carter in a hard-fought 1976 campaign for the Democratic nomination. About that experience he remarked: “Being boiled alive probably hurts worse than losing a close election, but at least you’re not tortured with the what-ifs.” His long standing chairmanship of the House Interior Committee coincided with the Alaskan Lands Act, an unprecedented expansion of environmental safeguards.
Too Funny to Be President is all platinum gold. There’s plenty of wisdom to go along with the gags, quite a bit of interesting insider history and a few off-color bits that only contribute to the charm. Turns out Gene McCarthy was funnier than hell. Did you know that Groucho Marx once said of Hubert Humphrey: “I don’t know what sort of president he’d make. He talks and talks and talks. He’d make a helluva wife.” You can’t get enough of this stuff.
Look: I do not know how much it costs to purchase a copy of Too Funny to Be President and I won’t research it, but I do want to provide this landmark accomplishment my highest recommendation. Along with his brother, legendary former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, the Udall legacy of progressive achievement ranks with any of the 20th century. And it’s the funniest by far.