US President Joe Biden is helped up after falling during the graduation ceremony at the United States Air Force Academy, just north of Colorado Springs in El Paso County, Colorado, on June 1, 2023 Image Credit: AFP

Pity the American president picked by American satirists as a target for their sly humour, as President Joe Biden was after the octogenarian chief executive tripped and fell over a sandbag while officiating at a public event in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last week.

In America, satire — a term coined by the Roman rhetorician Quintilian (d. 102AD) — has deep roots in the country’s literary tradition and is considered, well, serious business, given that it is in fact social commentary disguised as playful, mischievous humour.

Satirists may not be movie, football or rock stars, but they have been, in modern American history, prominent figures who played a not insignificant role in the public discourse, cutting down to size the high and mighty — all the way from Mark Twain to H.L. Mencken and from P. J. O’Rourke to the New Yorker’s current resident satirist Andrew Borowitz.

That is the serious side of satire. Then there is the tawdry one that lowbrow or pseudo-satirists find refuge in.

Which brings us back to President Biden in Colorado Springs, where he stumbled and fell as he climbed the stage at a ceremony marking the graduation of Air Force cadets there. He was unhurt as an Air Force officer and two members of his Secret Service detail helped him up.

That should’ve been the end of that, right? Wrong.

In a mean-spirited vein

Satirists, this time those with a mean-spirited vein in them, used the incident to question the president’s age and fitness for office. To be sure, Biden, who at age 80 is the oldest president in American history, had stumbled and fallen before — once when he climbed the stairs of Air Force One and again when his left foot got caught in his bike pedals as he stopped to talk to reporters on a bike trail near his home in Rehoboth, Delaware — but that, you would imagine, should hardly have been considered as fodder for satire or comedy sketches, let alone as a vehicle to portray America’s head of state as too infirm and too physically impaired to be in office.

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American presidents falling, however, is such fodder for lowbrow, pseudo-satirists as well as stand-up comics and comedy sketches like those shown on Saturday Night Live.

Ask Jerry Ford, the president most victimised by these folks, yet a president who was a sprightly 62-year-old when he occupied the White House — a University of Michigan ex football player who also skied and golfed — but the man had a bum knee. And presidents with bum knees, like the rest of us similarly afflicted, are known to stumble and fall.

Yet Ford was portrayed by these folks as a klutz at whose expense we were supposed to laugh, with the understanding, presumably, that the president himself is in on the joke. For that is satire’s pretence, is it not? We’re all having a good time.

In 1975, while on an official visit to Austria, President Ford tumbled down the stairs as he climbed down from Air Force One. True, it was not his first fall. The man had been caught on camera stumbling while he climbed up the same stairs in Michigan and down them in Yemen while there on an official visit. — let alone tripping over (who knows, divots, maybe?) on the golf course.

That was enough for Chevy Chase, who was probably the most celebrated comic in the US in the 1970s, to satirise the president, week in, week out, on Saturday Night Live, portraying him as a klutz falling all over the place and breaking things.

All well and good — if the president was in on the joke. He really was not, but he pretended to be.

So at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner that year, at which he was the guest of honour, President Ford got his own back at Chase when, as he climbed up to the podium to deliver his speech, he sneakily yanked at the edge of the tablecloth where the comedian was sitting, sending tableware flying all over the place, while affecting seeming horror at what he had done.

In on the joke

Sure, sure, the audience burst into laughter and applause. And, sure, the president may have gotten a little thrill out of tricking the trickster by, well, turning the tables on him, but in reality, Jerry Ford never wanted to be in on the joke or have anything to do with it.

The reason was that he knew the way he had been portrayed by Chevy Chase, along with other late- night comics, such as Johnny Carson, had cemented his image in the public’s mind as a bumbler.

In his memoir, A Time of Healing: The Autobiography of Gerald Ford, he wrote: “The news coverage [of the fall] was hurtful, but more damaging was the fact that Johnny Carson and Chevy Chase used my ‘missteps’ for their jokes. Their antics — and I’ll admit I laughed at them myself — helped create the perception of me as a stumbler. And that wasn’t funny”.

All of which brings us back yet again to President Joe Biden.

Satire aimed at mocking truly mockable events or figures in American public life, say the spectacle of Henry Kissinger receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 or that of Donald Trump being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America in 2017, is quite engaging.

On the other hand, satire that mocks the spectacle of an 80-year-old head of state tripping over a sandbag — satire, in this case, employed not to make us laugh with the target of the satire but for the invidious reason of questioning his cognitive faculties and his fitness for office — is downright vulgar.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.