Can Donald Trump be president if he can't take a joke?
Washington's equivalent of a Friar's Club roast, the dinner is often viewed as a barometer of a president's likability quotient, particularly when it comes to the matter of whether the sitting president can perform a decent comedy monologue as well as laugh along with a monologue from a comedy pro where most of the jokes are at his expense.
President Obama passed the test with flying colors. His monologue was clever and generally funny, especially when he gently poked fun at the industry that helps the Democratic Party raise tons of money: Hollywood.
There were plenty of showbiz stars in the audience, including Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm, Scarlett Johansson and Sean Penn, who got to hear Obama jokingly admit that he has let down a big segment of his key core constituency -- "movie stars." The president singled out Matt Damon, acknowledging that Damon had recently said he was disappointed in Obama's performance.
"Well, Matt, I just saw 'The Adjustment Bureau,' so ...." as the laughter began to swell. "Right back at ya, buddy."
But when it came to barbed humor, both from the president and the dinner's host, "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer Seth Meyers, the real target was Trump. Meyers was at the top of his game, blithely making fun of everything about Trump, from his hair ("Donald Trump often appears on Fox, which is ironic because a fox often appears on his head") to his taste in women ("Donald Trump owns the Miss USA Pageant, which is great for Republicans because it will streamline their search for a vice president.")
Surely Trump must know by now that the appropriate response to being hammered is to grin and bear it, especially when the cameras cut away to Trump every time a joke about him detonated. But Trump sat stony-faced through the whole ordeal, as if he were actually insulted by a few routine political zingers.
Trump made things even worse on Sunday when, in the course of several interviews, he attacked Meyers, telling the New York Times that "Seth Meyers has no talent" and saying on "Fox and Friends" that Meyers' "delivery frankly was not good. He's a stutterer and he really was having a hard time."
I guess this kind of nasty overreaction shouldn't exactly come as a surprise, but it once again proves that, despite all the media frenzy, the Trump Political Carnival isn't going to last very long. You can't make it as a boxer if you can't take a punch and you can't make it as a serious political candidate if you can't take a joke. Even Richard Nixon had the brains to go on "Laugh-In" and make fun of himself (thanks to his savvy young media consultant, future Fox News chief Roger Ailes).
Trump is clearly surrounded by sycophants, which is fine if you're a reality TV host, where the bar for good judgment isn't all that high. But presidential aspirants have to kiss babies, fend off hostile questions and always keep their cool, which is still clearly foreign territory to Trump.
If Trump is serious about running for president, he's going to need a sense of humor transplant. In America, after watching TV sitcoms all our lives, we're a nation that demands having a leader we can like, and if you can't laugh at yourself you'll never make it anywhere near the White House.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Donald Trump arriving at the White House correspondents dinner in Washington. Credit: Jim Bourg / Reuters