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Pundits, Politicians Gather For Half-Serious, Half-Witty Look At Presidency

September 18, 1986

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) _ Former President Ford, expounding on the role humor played in his presidency, inadvertantly illustrated his point Wednesday night as the podium he was using began to topple.

″Is this a setup?″ Ford asked as the top of the podium he’d been gripping loosened, then began tipping forward at a news conference kicking off his three-day Humor in the Presidency Symposium.

The former president burst out laughing when comic Chevy Chase, who mercilessly parodied the ex-president when the comedian was a regular on Saturday Night Live, stepped up to straighten the podium at the Gerald R. Ford Museum.

Ford had been saying he bore no resentment toward the comedians who earned a living lampooning his presidential pratfalls.

″Presidents are sitting ducks, and you might as well sit back and enjoy it. There’s nothing you can do about it,″ he said.

Ford and Chase are just two of the laugh-getters participating in the conference at the Gerald R. Ford Museum, where comics, politicians and pundits are meeting for a serious look at the lighter side of the presidency.

″Most of us are doing this because were were personally asked by Ford to be here,″ said comedian Pat Paulsen. ″We all made jokes on him, so we owe him one.″

Other participants include comics Art Buchwald and Mark Russell; Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams; and former press secretaries Ron Nessen and Jody Powell.

Ford, who was lampooned frequently because of his many pratfalls, said he painfully remembered falling down the stairs of Air Force One in Salzburg, Austria.

″As I was picking myself up, (White House photographer) Dave Kennerly said ’Nice of you to drop in,‴ Ford wrote in the symposium program. ″It wasn’t too funny to me at the time, but now I cannot deny the humor of that moment.

″Neither can I forget, much as I try, watching Ron Nessen and Chevy Chase on ’Saturday Night Live.‴

Ford was able to defuse much of the jabs because of his own sense of humor, said Gerald Gardner, author of a new book ″All The Presidents’ Wits.″

Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, had a biting wit that sometimes backfired. Once, after receiving a warm welcome at a public appearance, Gardner said Carter once told a crowd: ″It’s nice to see people waving with all five fingers.″

Paulsen said presidential humor is a creation of television.

″How do we know that Woodrow Wilson or Calvin Coolidge weren’t funny?″ he said.

The symposium, which climaxes with a performance by many of the participants Thursday night, has triggered enormous media interest, said symposium spokesman Piet Bennett. He said more than 150 reporters and the three major television networks have requested credentials to the event.

Portions also will be filmed by Home Box Office for a cable television special, he said.

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