There's debate about where Ronald Reagan ranks among America's greatest presidents, but there is far less doubt whether he should be recognized as our "most humorous president."
President Reagan's demeanor after the attempt on his life offered testimony that he, like many of his predecessors, found humor an effective antidote to the burdens of the presidency.
"Honey, I forgot to duck," he cracked to his wife.
As he was being wheeled into the operating room, he grinned and kidded with the doctors, "I hope you're all good Republicans."
Following surgery he came off with, "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
Later, he sent a note to waiting White House aides: "Winston Churchill said, 'There's no more exhilarating feeling than being shot at without result.'"
Several hours later came another message: "If I had had this much attention in Hollywood, I would have stayed there."
President Reagan's use of humor was as widespread as it was varied.
Much of his humor was self-effacing. When shown a picture of himself with Bonzo, a chimpanzee he had appeared with in a movie, he cracked, "I'm the one with the watch."
From the beginning, the question of Reagan's age prompted much discussion. By kidding it to death, he effectively defused it.
After quoting Thomas Jefferson's advice that "We should judge a president not by his age, but by his deeds," he declared, "And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying."
When he and Jimmy Carter attended the Al Smith dinner in New York in 1980, he told the story about how he had received a call from President Carter asking, "Mr. Reagan, how come you always look younger each time I see you riding a horse?" Reagan's reply: "Jimmy, I just keep riding older horses."
His quip during the second debate with Walter Mondale in 1984 put the issue at rest. "I am not going to, for political purposes," he said, with mock seriousness, "exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience."
During the 1980 campaign, with the state of the economy a significant issue, he offered this definition: "Recession is when your neighbor loses his job, depression is when you lose yours and … recovery will be when Jimmy Carter loses his."
Like all good politicians (Abraham Lincoln included), Ronald Reagan realized a little self-effacement about the recognition factor helps one to maintain a sense of proportion, like the story about his experience in New York. One day while hurrying down Fifth Avenue back to his hotel, he was suddenly confronted by a man who pointed his finger at him and said, "Ah, hah! I know you — I see you all the time in the 'pitchas' and on the TV." As he spoke, the man fumbled in his pocket for pen and paper. Finally, he triumphantly thrust the pen and paper in his hands and said, "I gotta have your autograph, Ray Milland!" So Reagan signed: Ray Milland.
He also enjoyed Russian jokes, like the story he told about Adam and Eve. "I sometimes think Adam and Eve were Russians," he said. "They didn't have a roof over their heads, nothing to wear, but they had one apple between them, and they thought that was paradise."
Speaking at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, he quipped, "The Russians have a new million-dollar lottery. The winner gets a dollar a year for a million years."
Forever the optimist and positive thinker, he told a Gridiron Dinner, "Since I came to the White House, I got two hearing aids, a colon operation, skin cancer, a prostate operation and I was shot. The damn thing is, I've never felt better in my life."
Not surprisingly, Ronald Reagan once pointed out that politics is like show business. "You have to have a hell of an opening, you coast for awhile, you have to have a hell of a closing."
Nearing his 100th birthday, it is safe to say we remember him because he never coasted, and he did have one hell of a closing.
• Martin Tullai is author of "The Presidency — Once Over Lightly" and "Speaking of Abraham Lincoln."
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