As controversy rages over whether it was proper satire for a clown to wear a mask of President Barack Obama and dared a bull to run him down at the Missouri State Fair, a wiser course than taking sides is simply to recall the words of one of the most satirized — and vilified — presidents of modern times.
President Lyndon B. Johnson faced biting satire and lampooning over the Vietnam War. Among the harshest critics were Tom and Dick Smothers, whose "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" ran on Sunday nights for three seasons from 1967-69.
The Smothers Brothers made no secret they were on the political left, opposed to the Vietnam War and the president behind it.
With near-regularity, guests on their show got in their digs at Johnson and the war. Impressionist David Frye regularly mimicked the president, portrayed him as a king in one skit, and referred to "my two semi-beautiful daughters."
Calypso singer Harry Belafonte performed "Lord, Don't Stop the Carnival" against a backdrop of anti-war demonstrators clashing with the police at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 — a segment that CBS deleted.
The controversy which the Smothers Brothers provoked became fodder for other comedians.
On NBC's "Laugh-In" in the late 1960's, co-host Dick Martin was repeatedly admonished by partner Dan Rowan for a politically incendiary remark and told: "You can't say that!"
"You could if you were on the Smothers Brothers Show!" Martin would shoot back.
On Sept. 10, 1967, folk singer and longtime leftist Pete Seeger, making his first network television appearance in 17 years, performed "Waste Deep in the Big Muddy", a metaphor for Johnson and his Vietnam policy about a U.S. Army sergeant ordering his men to march through a muddy river.
Seeger's performance of the song was dropped by CBS when he refused to comply with the network's request to drop the sixth verse, which clearly refers to the U.S. being stuck in Vietnam and concludes: "Waste deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on." The following year, Seeger was allowed to reappear on the show and perform the controversial verse, which lit up the CBS switchboard with complaints.
In October 1968, possibly bothered by weekly duels with the censors at CBS, the Smothers Brothers wrote to Johnson, who was set to leave office in three months, and apologized for the degree they went to in lampooning him.
"We have taken satirical jabs at you," they wrote, "and more than occasionally overstepped our bounds."
But Johnson, it turned out, had a sense of humor and actually enjoyed the work of the brothers who jabbed him on a weekly basis.
"It is part of the price of leadership of this great nation to be the target of satirists," the president replied, taking no offense at all at the Smothers Brothers.
"You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humorous in our lives."
The correspondence was revealed by the Smothers Brothers in March 1969 following the news that the network had canceled their show. Tommy Smothers hailed the now-former president as "a great American" and his letter was read on one of their last programs (with David Frye supplying Johnson's voice).
Now in their 70s, the Smothers Brothers performed until recently, and all three seasons of their "Comedy Hour" were recently released on DVD. The promotional package for it begins with the quotes from LBJ's letter.
At the Johnson Library in Austin, the exchange of letters between comedians and Johnson (who died in 1973) are featured in a glass case of their own, complete with photographs of the Smothers Brothers.
John Gizzi is chief political correspondent and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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