'The President's Watching. Let's Make Him Cringe And Squirm.'

While late-1960s milestones such as Walter Cronkite’s calling the Tet Offensive an American loss, and Hollywood’s shift towards nihilistic movies such as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy were considered the early signs of a culture war between what was then called “the new left” and mainstream America, a significant moment also occurred on April 17th, 1976, when Ron Nessen, President Ford’s press secretary, hosted an episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, during the show’s first season, to attempt to show that the Ford Administration had a sense of humor about itself, and the ribbing that SNL’s Chevy Chase gave Ford about his occasional stumbles.


Nessen’s appearance, along with a videotaped cameo of Ford saying, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night”, marked perhaps the last time that most Republicans in office would ever fully trust the mainstream media. And even then, Nessen was concerned about being set-up by the show. What he didn’t know was that the SNL production team had conceived a strategy of feinting left and running right, to paraphrase one of the show’s then-writers, so that the sketches that Nessen appeared in were relatively tame. It was the rest of the show that was deliberately raunchy and over the top, even for SNL. Because, as Rosie Shuster, another of the show’s writers, remarked, “The President’s watching. Let’s make him cringe and squirm.”

As Glenn Reynolds wrote earlier this week, “Personally, I think that Chevy Chase cost Ford the 1976 election. Well, part of it, anyway”. But to understand exactly how badly SNL head-faked Nessen and Ford, here’s the section devoted to Nessen’s appearance from Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s 1985 book on the early history of Saturday Night. (There’s a lot of material below, which I scanned from my copy of Hill and Weingrad’s book. Apologies in advance for any typos or missing words created by the OCR process.)

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Despite its lack of real [political] commitment, with ninety minutes to fill every week and the opportunity to be topical, Saturday Night got in more than share of blows against the empire, and television served to make its reach, if not its impact, significant indeed. Senator Eugene McCarthy told [SNL producer/creator] Lorne [Michaels] at the correspondents’ dinner in Washington that the first topic of conversation on the Senate floor every Monday morning was Saturday Night–the senators loved to relate to one another the jokes the show had made at their colleague’s expense on Weekend Update. Maverick presidential candidates like Fred Harris, and, later, John Anderson directly approached Saturday Night hoping for, and getting, some mention on the show. It was, therefore, no surprise that Ron Nessen thought he could use Saturday Night to defuse the stumblebum issue, or that Saturday Night was determined not to let itself be used.

The first prerogative Nessen exercised as an especially important host was to arrive on the 17th floor on Thursday instead of Monday. That proved to be to his disadvantage: Saturday Night had several days to get ready for him, arid by the time Nessen came aboard, the momentum of the show made it that much harder for him to control what happened or to get his bearings. So it was that Saturday Night proceeded to fake the pants off the press secretary of the President of the United States.

Lorne will forever maintain that Saturday Night did not intentionally, as he put it, “take the President and shove his press secretary up his ass.” Nessen happened to host the show while NBC was in the midst of a strike by its technical union. Much of the studio equipment that week was manned by management personnel, so that the complexity the show might ordinarily have had was reduced. All week long Lorne was telling the writers to “simplify, simplify,” and by Saturday he was forced to use sketches that called for as little camera movement as possible. That ruled out, Lorne says, a lot of the more subtle political material that had been written for the show.

But many of the show’s writers say there was more to it than that. They say, without equivocation, that Saturday Night was out to get Nessen. The attitude, [writer] Rosie Shuster said, was: “The President’s watching. Let’s make him cringe and squirm.” The writers knew that Nessen would be on guard for material that was politically dangerous. Thus, they went in a different direction–“feinted left and went right,” as one put it–by writing instead some of the raunchiest material ever presented on Saturday Night.

Most of that material was in sketches that did not feature Nessen, and Nessen, thrown into the whirlwind schedule after his late arrival, didn’t pay attention to them, But even if he had paid attention, he said later, “What could I do? Walk off in a huff on Thursday, two days before the show?” So Nessen didn’t object to a comma of what had been written.

NBC was in a similar bind. There was some concern at the network that Saturday Night was about to offend people it shouldn’t offend. [NBC censor] Herminio Traviesas came to the dress rehearsal that night to pass on some of the material himself. He resisted a few bits, but in the end he let almost everything by. It’s likely that NBC, with all the attention being focused on Nessen’s appearance, was more than usually interested in avoiding any confrontation over censorship that night. There was also a feeling among NBC’s brass that Nessen knew what he was doing and that he could take care of himself.

In his opening monologue and in the first sketch with Chevy, Nessen played along with the sort of Gerald Ford jokes he’d expected–explaining that among the things he’d learned as press secretary was how to remove the President’s tie from a helicopter blade (while the President was still wearing it), and watching as Chevy stumbled around the Oval Office talking to a stuffed dog, donning a leather football helmet, stapling his ear, and signing his hand, It was then that Saturday Night made its move in the other direction.

One of the sketches Nessen wasn’t in and hadn’t paid attention to during rehearsals was written by Michael O’Donoghue. It was based on the name Smucker’s Jam, which O’Donoghue renamed Flucker’s. The idea–not one of O’Donoghue’s more sophisticated–was that obscene-sounding names must sell jam. The cast members stood onstage (without any tricky camera movements) and recited the most offensive names for jams they could think of, including Nose Hair, Death Camp, Mangled Baby Ducks, Dog Vomit, Monkey Pus, and Painful Rectal Itch.

On Weekend Update, Emily Litella, misunderstanding all the talk about the presidential elections, editorialized on “presidential erections.” Gilda [Radner] and [writer] Alan Zweibel had originally written this piece as it sounded-as a commentary on presidential penises-but Lorne made them tone it down by switching the subject to buildings and monuments dedicated to Presidents. The point came across anyway.

Another sketch written by Zweibel and Gilda was a parody commercial for a douche called Autumn Fizz. Gilda pitched the product with her boyfriend, played by Chevy, sitting beside her. (Again, no tricky camera work, and again, no Ron Nessen.) The joke was that. Autumn Fizz was the carbonated douche-“the douche with the effervescence of uncola.” It came in several different flavors, including strawberry, lemon, and egg cream. As if signaling her approval, Gilda burped. The line that even those on the 17th floor thought too cheap–although the censors let it by–was Gilda’s exhortation, “Don’t leave him holding the bag.”

Then there was the sketch that brought the Supreme Court into bedroom of Chevy and Jane, the one that Herminio Traviesas had come to studio to see performed in dress rehearsal. The justices, in their judicial robes, stood around the bed while the couple made love, watching to see that didn’t do anything kinky. “You’ll have to lose those high heels,” one of justices said to Jane. As the couple writhed under the covers, one of the justices remarked, “I’m a little nervous about where that mouth is heading.” Another justice declared a moratorium on the “butterfly flick”.

Even the Home Movie–a regular feature in which viewers sent in short films–and the music were more controversial than usual. The Home Movie was set in a men’s room. One by one, several men walked in to relieve them selves, each adding a different harmony to a vocal chorale as they stood at urinals. At the end they all zipped up and walked out. The musical guest was punk rocker Patti Smith, whose ragged look alone probably affronted more conservative viewers. Smith sang her version of “Gloria”, which included line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/but not mine.” By the time Smith came on, it was past midnight, so she was singing on Easter Sunday.

This was all a lot different from Richard Nixon’s appearance on Laugh-In, although Ron Nessen may have been the last to realize how different. It was obvious to NBC chairman Julian Goodman, for one. The Nessen show was first time that the NBC brass had ever attended Saturday Night en masse. They sat in the front row of the balcony, and although he tried his best not show it, Goodman was shocked by what he saw. “You don’t become chairman of a major broadcasting company,” he said later, “without learning to grit your teeth and smile.”

After the show, NBC threw a huge party at the Rockefeller Center skating rink. Julian Goodman, who had known Nessen in the days when they were both at NBC News, danced with Nessen’s wife, and she, too, seemed to her doubts about what she had seen. Ron, she told Goodman, sometimes had a tendency to overextend himself. Nessen himself was in a celebratory mood, roundly toasting his performance. He seemed to be having a wonderful time. So were the people from the show, some of whom, despite the presence of the NBC brass, Nessen, and other dignitaries, were smoking pot at the party. They did, however, take the initial precaution of lighting up their joints all at the same time to minimize the possibility of anyone’s trying to stop them.

It wasn’t until a post-party party at [musician] Paul Simon’s apartment later that night that Nessen let his true feelings about the show be known. By then he may have gotten the drift that the show made him look bad, and he’d also had quite a bit to drink. [SNL writer] Herb Sargent, who was there, says everyone was in a boisterous mood, Nessen no more than others. Michael O’Donoghue, who was also there, saw it differently, describing Nessen’s tone as almost belligerent. O’Donoghue and Sargent agree that Nessen was arguing he had “co-opted Saturday Night. Nessen’s basic message, O’Donoghue said, was: “You thought you’d get me, but I got you.”

Nesson learned otherwise back in Washington. The wire services quoted senior White House aides as saying that President Ford was “not pleased” by the show. The staffers themselves were said to have found it “vulgar” and “tasteless”. Some thought it made Ford “look stupid.” There were reports that some of the aides wanted Nessen relieved of his job.

Jerald terHorst, Nessen’s predecessor as press secretary to Ford, described the show in a newspaper column as “a travesty of good taste … grossly offensive … kinky sex … bawdy crudity … a gross error of judgment.” The President’s son Jack–a devoted Saturday Night fan, as were the other two children–sent Nessen an angry handwritten note that read: “I thought you were supposed to make professional decisions that get the Pres. good press! If you get a min. I’d be happy to explain to you that your job is to further the Pres. interest, not yours or your family’s!”

Gerald Ford himself, who had watched the show at Camp David, made no public comment, but his wife, Betty, did. She seemed for the most part to be putting the best possible face on the episode, saying she and Ford “thought the White House material was very funny. We both laughed and had a good time.” But she admitted they found some of the other jokes “a little distasteful,” And she regretted the impression that her husband, by appearing on tape in the show, might be perceived as “endorsing” Saturday Night. “When he did it [the taping],” she said, “he didn’t know what was going to take place.”

Nessen said later that when he asked the President what he thought, Ford answered, “I found some of it funny, and some of it I didn’t find funny and some of it I didn’t quite understand why it should be a subject of humor.” This was slightly more than Nessen told the White House press corps during the daily briefing the Monday after the show, when Saturday Night seemed to be only thing the reporters wanted to talk about. Nessen said then that the president had “basically no reaction.”

Nessen tried to laugh off the rest of the reporters’ questions that morning, but he was clearly sensitive about what an issue the show had become. One reporter wrote that when he tried again to raise the subject of Saturday Night in Nessen’s office later, Nessen “rose from his desk and began shouting that discussion of the program was “not something grown men should doing. . . . This is stupid. . . . It’s bull. . . . Don’t serious journalists have anything better to do than this?'”

Several prominent newspaper columnists (all well over thirty years of age) took the show very seriously indeed. Among the most vehement was Anthony LaCamera, the TV columnist for the Boston Herald American. “Instead of foiling the tormentors,” LaCamera wrote, “it came out like a Presidential Endorsement of the usual Saturday Night shenanigans. It didn’t do anything for dignity of the Presidency either, and respect for the nation’s highest office is something we desperately need in these troubled times. . . . Frankly, I don’t care what happens to Ron Nessen, who I never met. But I am deeply concerned about NBC and its seeming irresponsibility in the deplorable matter of its Saturday Night series. . . . This is yellow television.”

Harriet Van Home of the New York Post was equally offended. She said the show offered “more smut than satire,” citing Saturday Night as a prime example of the moral decay of Western Civilization. “We live, of course, in an age of anti-prudery,” she wrote. “That’s fine, that’s mature, tolerant and at moment, de rigueur. . . . But has this new candor produced better entertainment, more brilliant performers or a glorious revolution in art? No, it has given us a decade of thoroughly nasty, violent, corrupting movies. It has debased sex, put massage parlors on every Main Street and made the boob tube the lewd tube on Saturday night. . . . In our mad rush to liberation, we have meekly accepted the motto of the young and foolish: ‘Don’t make rules.’. . . Let us cry ‘Enough’ to the vulgarity that spits in our faces.”

Worst of all to Nessen may have been the comment a reader made to Washington Post columnist Bill Gould. If Gerald Ford agreed to let Nessen host Saturday Night, the reader said, “I don’t see how I can vote for a man could be so dumb.”

Nessen eventually concluded that Saturday Night had in fact been out to get him. He was helped to that conclusion when Chevy Chase, who’d got along so well with Ford at the correspondents’ dinner, started excoriating the President in interviews, calling him “a totally compassionless man” whose eyes were so empty that looking into them “was like looking into the eyes of 50 milligrams of Valium.”

Chevy and others on Saturday Night firmly believe they helped defeat Ford in the 1976 election by promulgating so effectively his image as a befuddled klutz. Nessen agrees that Ford’s stumblebum image helped defeat him, but he doesn’t think Saturday Night was that significant in furthering it. Nevertheless, Nessen conceded in the end that his appearance on the show hadn’t he President any good, either.

“Looking back,” he wrote in his book, “it’s obvious that my attempt to smother the ridicule of Ford by joining the laughter on Saturday Night was a failure.”


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(End Of excerpt.)

Update: In his latest syndicated op-ed, Jonah Goldberg explores “The Tito Puente Effect:”

One of my favorite scenes from Stripes is when is when Bill Murray’s girlfriend complains about how he constantly plays Tito Puente albums. Murray responds that, one of these days, “Tito Puente’s gonna be dead, and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, I’ve been listening to him for years, and I think he’s fabulous.’”

In recent years, the Tito Puente effect has afflicted liberals to a stunning degree. The press corps, the liberal intellectual establishment and the Democratic Party once considered Ronald Reagan a warmongering, senile fascist. Now it’s hard to find a self-described liberal to offer anything but praise. Barry Goldwater has also been Tito Puente-ized. His granddaughter’s recent HBO documentary depicts him as a cuddly-wuddly live-and-let-live sort of guy. Hillary Clinton, James Carville and Al Franken all pony up testimonials about how swell the 1964 GOP nominee was. Younger readers might need to be reminded that the liberal establishment hated Goldwater with such a blinding passion that reason, decency and truthfulness were deemed luxuries his critics couldn’t afford.And now we have dear, sweet Jerry Ford. Everybody, it seems, loves Ford. Ted Kennedy even gave him a Profile in Courage Award a few years ago. But there’s an interesting difference. Ford was Tito Puente-ized early. His decision to pardon Richard Nixon — the courageous act for which he later got his Profile award — elicited enormous criticism and, some argue, cost him the election in 1976. But he quickly rebounded and was never hated the way Reagan, Goldwater, or Nixon were. Tricky Dick’s rehabilitation will take a while longer, even though he was more liberal than any president since. As with Herbert Hoover, too much has been invested in his demonization to write it off merely for decency’s sake.

Looking back at SNL’s attempt to get Ford is a reminder that at least in the halls of NBC’s 30 Rock, Ford was definitely hated by some for a time.


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