In tomorrow’s Washington Post Magazine, Gene Weingarten devotes his weekly humor column to a departed politician – but not Sen. Ted Kennedy. Instead, Weingarten spends several hundred words examining a long-forgotten book titled The Wit & Humor Of Richard Nixon, published in 1969 and edited by Bill Adler.
Adler, a New York-based literary agent, has been author or coauthor of well over a hundred books over the last half-century. Most of these fall into the category of “instant books”: slim volumes on a timely subject, intended for prominent placement (preferably close by the cash register) and quick sales. Adler’s first big success in this format was The Kennedy Wit, a compendium of JFK’s one-liners at press conferences and social events. It was soon followed by More Kennedy Wit and succeeding volumes featuring the repartee of almost every President since.
Adler’s other standby has been a long series of books collecting charming letters from children – usually to Presidents (such as Dear President Johnson, with drawings by Charles M. Schulz), but sometimes to other celebrities or institutions. (In my own childhood I had a copy of Love Letters To The Mets, gloriously illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist George Price, a man born to draw the craggy face of Casey Stengel.)
Adler, at the age of 80, is still churning such books out – Kids’ Letters To President Obama is his latest. But every so often he strikes out commercially. The Nixon book was one such case. Adler’s previous efforts had mostly been published by Simon & Schuster, then as now a rather prestigious hardcover firm. The Wit & Humor Of Richard Nixon was issued as a paperback original by Popular Library, at that time running a rather modest fifth place in the field behind Bantam, Signet, Pocket Books, and Avon.
As Weingarten notes, the book received few reviews. But one of them – more scatological than urbane, as the columnist remarks – was from a twenty-year-old Frank Rich (New York Times stardom still far in the future) in the Harvard Crimson. Both Rich and Weingarten quote from the book, and their excerpts illustrate the fact that Adler indeed had a tough row to hoe when compiling such a work. Kennedy (with the assistance of skilled writers) had a knack for producing zingers that, even on the printed page and minus his half-casual, half-ironic tone, still had some bite.
By contrast, the thirty-seventh President admittedly had no real skill at small talk, and lines like “We have to quit thinking of Latin America in terms of siestas, manana, Rumba, Samba, and Cha-Cha-Cha” only have some zest if one can inwardly hear RN’s rumbling voice intoning them. And Weingarten is correct in saying that many of the lines selected by Adler, such as RN’s observation that cottage cheese tastes better with ketchup, weren’t particularly funny.
So The Wit & Humor Of Richard Nixon came and went nearly unnoticed – so much so that, Weingarten informs us, Adler no longer remembers compiling the book and was startled when the columnist told him about it.
But the most interesting part of the column is not its text, but the accompanying illustration by Eric Shansby. The cartoon depicts RN in a nightclub setting, with a brick wall behind him – the traditional background for standups since Mort Sahl’s heyday. “But seriously, folks–” RN is saying, to a bored audience. A splattered tomato is on the wall; on the floor of the stage, a manhole is opened and a ladder sticks out.
Now, the interesting part. In the cartoon RN is labeled “Nixon;” the splattered fruit is labeled “Tomato;” the crowd is identified as “Unamused Audience;” the manhole is “Sewer.” This work is drawn more or less in the familiar style of the Post’s three-time Pulitzer winner, and, sure enough, at its corner appear the words: “with apologies to the great Herblock.” Shansby’s nod aside, the labeling in the cartoon makes me think that it is, at least in part, intended to poke fun at the late Herblock’s tendency to substitute iconographic shorthand (calculated to press the right buttons with his liberal readers) for real satirical depth. That makes it rather unexpected in the pages of the Post and somewhat compensates for a rather lackluster column.