Gerald Ford the First Pop-Culture President

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The death of former President Gerald Ford brings back memories of his most-famous moments. The accidental president prone to accidents was often lampooned, nowhere more famously than on Saturday Night Live. He was the first president to truly pervade pop culture.


The death of former President Gerald Ford brings to mind many of the famous and infamous moments of his presidency. Ford was slightly prone to accidents and was often lampooned, especially on “Saturday Night Live” on NBC television. That show's portrayal of the president foreshadowed the interplay between presidents and pop culture.

Here is DAY TO DAY's Mike Pesca from New York.

MIKE PESCA: On the fourth-ever episode of this new NBC program called “Saturday Night Live,” a fellow who looked a lot like Chevy Chase and spoke a lot like Chevy Chase stared into the camera and asked us to believe he was the president.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Saturday Night Live”)

Mr. CHEVY CHASE (Comedian): (As President Gerald Ford) And if I don't win, I will continue to run in the primaries, even if there are none.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHASE: And now for my second announcement.

(Soundbite of body hitting floor)

PESCA: Which was, as it always would be with Chase's Ford, a pratfall. Choosing to portray the president without a bald wig, makeup or even the slightest nod at a Midwest accent, Chase went in a direction that was daring, cutting edge and, most importantly, funny. Al Franken was a writer on “Saturday Night Live” from the beginning.

Mr. AL FRANKEN (Writer): He very much felt that once you were putting prosthetics on and stuff like that, you're losing.

PESCA: Franken, always a political junkie, found himself at the 1976 New Hampshire primaries. He couldn't even get into the same room as the president, but there was the presidential press secretary.

Mr. FRANKEN: Ron Nessen walked by. I was really excited to see Ron Nessen, which is not a sentence you hear every day. So Nessen said he enjoyed the show, and I just asked him if he'd like to host.

PESCA: And a few weeks later, there was Ron Nessen doing the monologue.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Saturday Night Live”)

Mr. RON NESSEN: I've learned a few phrase that make this job easier, phrases like: What the president really said was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NESSEN: Or what the president really meant was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NESSEN: Or what the president really bumped into was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: And there, opening the show, Gerald Ford himself.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Saturday Night Live”)

President GERALD FORD: Live from New York, it's Saturday night.

(Soundbite of applause)

PESCA: This was an early glimpse into the interplay between the presidency and the satire-industrial complex. Of course, before that, John F. Kennedy was genuinely witty in White House correspondent dinners and Richard Nixon went on “Laugh-in.”

Mr. MARK KATZ (Former Presidential Speechwriter): I remember watching it. Sock it to me?

PESCA: Mark Katz has been a comedy writer to Bill Clinton. He says “Saturday Night Live's” portrayal of Gerald Ford reminded even a 10-year-old in 1975 that the presidency was an office that could be mocked.

Mr. KATZ: It absolutely kind of colored my understanding of who our president was. You know, it absolutely kind of helped us understand that it's OK to make fun of a president.

PESCA: Of course, that didn't start on SNL, and “Saturday Night Live” is no longer at the vanguard of political comedy on TV. But as Al Franken points out, even in this day of “The Daily Show” and Internet spoofs, “Saturday Night Live” has a very important place for a simple reason.

Mr. FRANKEN: SNL always, you know, has the ability to have someone play the president, and that's a tradition that, you know, Chevy started.

PESCA: Thus the feedback loop where the president sees how he is portrayed and either changes his behavior or at least tries to get in front of the joke. Franken points to the 2000 election when would-be president Al Gore's handlers actually showed Gore an SNL debate skit as a way of saying stop sighing so much. Franken says Ford may have been hurt by all the mockery in 1976. That's what his handlers believed, anyway.

In the end, however, it was Chevy Chase who suffered the most. He developed an addiction to painkillers after doing so many pratfalls as the president. You can only pad a podium so much.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

ADAMS: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from

I'm Noah Adams.


I'm Madeleine Brand, and you're not.

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