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IS RICHARD NIXON FUNNY? IS A TOILET SMART?

WASHINGTON - If you are like me, you admire the look of ladies in sundresses but wonder why the laundry-instruction tag so often flips up and ruins an otherwise pleasant view of a bare back. Also, if you're like me, you appreciate the occasional odd non sequitur, such as the sudden, startling appearance, right here, of Richard Nixon.

I am writing today about Nixon, because I must correct an error I have allowed to creep into my past writing. I have always numbered Nixon among the unfunniest people in history. Whatever you may think of the man - whether you considered him an evil, stubble-faced paranoiac or a hulking, remorseless assassin of constitutional democracy - he never impressed me, or most Americans, with his spontaneous levity. Nixonian humor tended to arise only through inadvertence, such as when he was photographed walking on the beach in shoes and socks, looking as comfortable as an eyeball in the sand; or when he said that Italians "smell different" from everyone else; or the time he was caught on tape telling Bob Haldeman that most Jews are psychiatrists who want to legalize marijuana.

But deliberately funny? No. At least that's what I thought until the other day, when I happened on a book - long out of print - titled The Wit & Humor of Richard Nixon. As I leafed through it, I had to admit I'd been wrong. Calling Nixon "unfunny" is an error. It is its own non sequitur, an inexcusable abuse of semantics. It misses the point entirely, like calling a toilet uneducated. Humor wasn't a language at which Nixon was poor. Humor was a language he simply didn't speak.

This compilation was published in 1969, months after Nixon was elected president. The editor, a man named Bill Adler, had what should have been a simple job, and it was one he knew how to do. He'd already compiled a similar book for JFK, and it had become a best-seller. Adler's job was to comb every public utterance Nixon had ever made and - with the gift of ample white space so the quotes could "breathe" - fill a mere 128 pages with the most hilarious stuff.

You can smell Adler's desperation on every page.

On Page 57, when the busy Nixon was asked when he gets time to sleep, he un-hilariously says "every Thursday." On Page 82, he is asked the same question again and says "every Tuesday." Yes, both made it into the book. Twice, Nixon observes that cottage cheese tastes better with ketchup on it.

Quotes as bland as un-ketchuped cottage cheese fill this miserable little volume; there are so many of them, and they are so absent of even the faintest whisper of mirth, that the editor is often compelled to introduce them with misleading verbs.

On Page 38, in an address to the U.S. diplomatic corps in Copenhagen, this is what Nixon is said to "quip":

"Don't worry, I'll keep it noncontroversial."

Nixon wasn't always just being unfunny. Sometimes he was being unfunny and bizarre. On Page 31, he says: "I am not a hawk nor a dove but I suggest we'd better be eagles today. The eagle does not attack but the eagle always defends." Patriotic metaphor aside, the animal Nixon describes is one of nature's purest predators, aeronautically designed for rapid pursuit of terrified creatures scrambling for their lives, anatomically equipped with talons mighty enough to immobilize a monkey as it is being shredded alive by a beak as ruthless as a buzz saw.

I looked for contemporaneous reviews of this book. There were only a few, and they were respectfully restrained; this was the new president, after all. One exception is a review in the Harvard Crimson written by a then-20-year-old Frank Rich, now the politics and culture columnist of the New York Times. The young Rich had all of his acidity but was evidently still working on the urbanity: He writes that the Nixon of this book is "as much fun as diarrhea."

I found myself feeling awfully sorry for Bill Adler, the editor. It turns out he is alive - 80 years old, very sharp, still working in the book industry. I had a lot of questions. They turned out to be moot.

Me: How hard was it to do The Wit & Humor of Richard Nixon?

Bill: I never did a book like that.

Me: Yes, you did.

Bill: I didn't! I'm too old to lie.

Me: I'm looking at it. Your name is on it. You wrote the preface.

Bill: Really? Can you send it to me?

Me: Okay.

Bill: Actually, I'm not surprised. I'd stoop as low as necessary. I once did a book with Margaret Truman on White House pets.

Me: She liked animals?

Bill: She hated animals. She liked money.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. You can chat with him online at noon Sept. 29 at www.washingtonpost.com.

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