Talking Trash to Power

The case for a presidential court jester. Seriously.


| May-June 2011


On June 23, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, were scheming about how an FBI investigation into the activities of the Nixon administration could be brought to a halt.

Haldeman suggested that the CIA be ordered to tell the FBI that their investigations were delving into national security matters. The CIA would then take over and drop the investigation. Nixon urged Haldeman to get it done, and this fateful decision would within two years lead to the only presidential resignation in U.S. history and the arrest and jailing of a host of administration officials for various crimes related to obstruction of justice.

The entire mess could possibly have been avoided if the executive branch of the U.S. government had employed another kind of adviser, an adviser that for hundreds of years kept European, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese rulers from making terrible mistakes—to wit, a court jester.

Don’t laugh.

Or, actually, do.

Laughter was the métier of the medieval court jester, also known as clown or fool. His (or her) specialties were satire, mockery, ridicule. Laughter was the means of introducing inconvenient truths without giving offense. In Europe from about 800 C.E. to the Renaissance, the courts of kings were all under the sway of the Roman Catholic Church. But a good court jester would put on little acts showing how greedy for worldly goods a bishop might be, and mocking the piety of local priests given to earthly along with spiritual pursuits. Jesters were careful not to mock the doctrines or ethical principles of the Church. Instead they targeted only officials who did not live up to the Church’s high standards.