Humor in political discourse is a more potent weapon than spite. Mark Katz, who held the unusual position of presidential joke writer in the Clinton administration, proves this point decisively and with great fun in Clinton and Me: A Real Life Political Comedy. Katz begins his story in early 1995, when he tried to convince an unamused President Clinton to use an egg timer as the centerpiece of his speech before a group of Washington insiders known as the Alfalfa Club. The egg timer would serve as a comic device, allowing the president to make fun of himself for delivering an overly long State of the Union address. Clinton rejected the idea and went on to give a speech filled with spiteful, personal invectives; the evening was judged a disaster for the president.
Katz started his political life as a diehard Democrat who grew up in a household in love with the Kennedys. The book chronicles his journey from college prankster at Cornell to his work on the 1988 Michael Dukakis campaign, where he met George Stephanopoulos. Trying to make the humorless Dukakis funny proved too difficult. As the author puts it, "writing jokes for Dukakis was like being the staff photographer for The Wall Street Journal." Katz needed a better client, and he got one with the election of Bill Clinton and the emergence of Katz's friend Stephanopoulos as a star in White House.
With engaging style, the book describes the hurried process of writing a presidential speech. We learn that the Democratic joke writer's principal rival is Al Franken, who is frequently enlisted to contribute presidential one-liners. Katz's goal is to supplant Franken and avoid having Franken get credit for his work an outcome he didn't always achieve. While the author is clearly a partisan Democrat, his book offers laughs for those on both sides of the aisle. The Democratic reader will like the jokes directed at Republicans, and Republicans should enjoy the irreverent attitude Katz uses to describe Democrats, including his former boss. In an era of vindictive politics, this book also reminds us that one of our most effective presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was also one of the funniest a worthy role model for today's crop of candidates.