Talking Trash to Power

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Randall Enos /

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.

Besides errant priests, the jesters publicly mocked “venal officials and nobles, and erring or corrupt or lazy rulers, together with anything deemed sacrosanct,” according to Beatrice K. Otto, whose book Fools Are Everywhere is a marvelous compendium of history and lore about court jesters the world over.

A jester would sass the king, addressing him with nicknames that no other member of the royal court would dare use. Henry VIII of England (never one to turn his cheek from an insult) enjoyed the services of the fool Will Somers, who called the king Harry. The two men were exceptionally close, as was often the case between kings and fools.

Common belief held that children and fools could speak only the truth. This belief was a kind of protective covering, but the jester had to have a nimble wit–to be able, for example, to create a complex riddle full of wordplay or a simple, deadly declarative sentence to remind a king that he was overlooking something important. Charles II of England was a noted carouser, often missing morning appointments because of hangovers. European kings tended to say “off with his head” as casually as “good afternoon,” so courtiers were leery of pointing out any royal flaws. Thus it fell to Charles’ fool, Tom Killigrew, to try to shame him out of his bad habits.

One morning after Charles had been out most of the night, Tom walked into the royal bedroom and Charles said, “Now we shall hear of our faults.” But Killigrew replied, “No, faith, I don’t care to trouble myself with that which all the town talks of.”

Of course, when fools who tested the limits of the royal sense of humor went too far, they risked being soundly thrashed, exiled, or even beheaded.

For the most part, the kind of person who would become a jester was irrepressible, even a bit manic, a sort of medieval Robin Williams. Jesters typically had no stake in the politics of the court, only in its gossip and peccadilloes, which were, of course, fodder for more ridicule. They tended to be aggressively honest, and this is what distinguished them from all the other entertainers–minstrels, actors, storytellers, jugglers–who showed up from time to time. Court jesters sang, danced, orated, and acted the clown, but they spoke honestly to their king, free of any influence from what today we call special interests.

Even here in the United States where no king has ever held court, we have had near equivalents of court jesters. Americans came to think of a circus clown named Dan Rice as President Abraham Lincoln’s court jester, since Lincoln often openly expressed his appreciation of Rice’s wit. But Rice was part of a traveling circus, and he was usually somewhere other than Washington, D.C.

Like Rice, Will Rogers, the quintessential American humorist of the 20th century, had easy access to the Oval Office, in this case when it was inhabited by Woodrow Wilson. Rogers claimed that he was not a member of an organized political party; he was a Democrat. Like most presidents, Wilson had his share of trouble with the U.S. Senate, and he likely would have agreed with Rogers that “there ought to be one day–just one–when there is open season on senators.” Later, President Franklin Roosevelt said that discussing foreign affairs with Rogers was as informative as talking with any of his diplomats.

But of course Rogers was a public jester. His presence in the White House was only occasional. Nor are any of today’s humorists devoted solely to the president, and most of them have recognizable biases toward one party or the other.

The Obama White House does have a person who has the daily access that is a requirement for a court jester. He is Reggie Love, the president’s so-called body man. He and the president start most days together on the basketball court. It is not clear how much advice, if any, Love gives to the president, but there is a story about how once, when Love thought that Obama had eaten enough brownies, he snatched the rest away from the president.

So there is a small (okay, tiny) precedent for my proposal for the creation of an official presidential court jester. To insulate this officeholder from being excluded just when he or she is most needed, the office should perhaps be considered a separate, fourth branch of the government, with guaranteed rights of attendance at all presidential affairs.

Would that the office existed in the current and previous administrations. The presidential jester might have echoed Will Rogers, who once said, “Now if there is one thing we do worse than any other nation, it is try and manage somebody else’s affairs.”

Then hear this:

In 1386 an Austrian duke called together his council to discuss an attack on Switzerland. He asked the attendant fool, Jenny von Stockach, for an opinion, and she was blunt and to the point: “You fools, you’re all debating how to get into the country, but none of you have thought how you’re going to get out again.”

The fool has spoken.

Excerpted from Notre Dame Magazine (Winter 2011), a quarterly publication that reports on the history, alumni, and activities of the University of Notre Dame.

This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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