Editor’s Note: Ten years ago Jake Page, who wrote a dozen essays for this magazine before his death in 2016, was troubled by the state of American politics. He prescribed an ancient antidote: the court jester. It was a remedy once used to keep the exalted in line while seasoning the halls of power with sprinkles of levity — a prescription needed even more so today.
On June 23, 1972, two men sat in the Oval Office in the White House. The president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, and his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, were developing a plot whereby an FBI investigation into obstruction of justice and other crimes suspected 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 leading into national security matters, and the CIA would take over. And the CIA could be persuaded to drop the matter altogether. The president 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. This was, of course, the scandal called Watergate.
- Related article
- A Will Rogers political sampler
The entire mess would probably not have occurred if the executive branch of the U.S. government, and in particular the president, enjoyed the services of another kind of adviser, an adviser that for hundreds, even thousands of years kept European and 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 oil a jester used to slip inconvenient truths into the royal presence without offending it.
In Europe from about 800 A.D. to the Renaissance, the courts of kings and lesser nobles were all devoted to (and under the sway of) the Roman Catholic Church. But a good court jester would put on little acts showing how greedy for rich clothes and other worldly goods a bishop might be, and mock the piety of any local priests given to earthly along with spiritual pursuits. These barbs were often delivered in riddles or songs, and sometimes skits. The jester was careful not to mock the body of the Church with its doctrines and ethical principles. Instead they mocked only Church 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. Peter the Great, seeking to introduce European learning and culture to Mother Russia, encouraged his many court jesters to ridicule old-fashioned ideas and prejudices. A jester would regularly sass the king, addressing him in 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. No “Your Exalted Majesty,” no bowing and scraping there, no pro-forma flowery flattery. The two men were exceptionally close, as often happened between kings and fools.
Common belief held that children and fools could speak only the truth. This belief was a kind of protective covering for the jester — after all, who could blame fools for saying whatever came into their heads? Many court jesters did come from the ranks of the physically disabled and many were dwarfs. Some were “naturals,” people who were what we would call mentally challenged. On the other hand some were known to have come from the ranks of the educated, such as priests or soldiers who took on the jester’s role.
The ladies of the courts, Catherine de Medici and Mary Queen of Scots, for example, were served by jestresses. “Natural” or not, the court jester had to have a nimble wit — for example, creating a complex riddle full of word play or a simple, declarative and deadly sentence to remind a king that he was overlooking something important. Charles II of England, who reclaimed the throne from Oliver Cromwell’s Protestant revolution, was a noted carouser, often missing morning appointments because of hangovers.
European kings evidently could say “off with his head” about as easily as “good afternoon,” so courtiers were leery of pointing out any royal flaws such as those of Charles. So it fell to Charles’s fool, Tom Killigrew, to try to shame him out of his bad habits — the attempt becoming a nearly lifelong effort on Tom’s part. One morning after Charles had been out most of the night, Tom walked into the royal bedroom, and Charles is quoted as saying, “Now we shall hear of our faults.” But Killigrew said, “No, faith, I don’t care to trouble myself with that which all the town talks of.”
Of course, the nobles were under no real compunction to heed the warnings of their fools, but not heeding them could be dangerous. In one of many examples of the European habit of attacking one’s neighbors, the fool Hans warned Duke Leopold I of Austria in the year 1315 to call off a planned attack, but the duke went ahead anyway and suffered a terrible defeat.
On the other hand, when fools who were testing their prowess and the limits of the royal sense of humor went too far, they might be soundly thrashed or run out of the territory not to return — or even beheaded. Yet plenty of tales show that some jesters were witty enough to talk their way out of being executed. In one instance that the author Otto recounts, a Chinese jester facing execution said, “I’d just like to say one thing before I die.” The emperor asked what he had in mind. “If Your Majesty takes my head, it will be absolutely useless to you.” The jester added that it also would be extremely painful to himself. The emperor laughed and let him go.
For the most part, the kind of person who would become a jester was irrepressible, even a bit manic (in a nonclinical sense), driven to wordplay, to music, to mockery, to rhyme, to slapstick, a medieval Robin Williams. They would burst into song with or without provocation, race around the room, taking up various ridiculous postures, laughing at and scandalizing the nobles gathered in the court. We think of the jester as wearing colorful clothes and motley, motley being the three-cornered hat with bells, hence the phrase, the motley fool. But no jester uniform was called for everywhere. What was uniform about jesters was their lack of an ax to grind. They typically had no stake in the politics of the court, only its gossip and peccadilloes, which were, of course, fodder for more ridicule.
They tended overwhelmingly to be honest, sometimes overly so. 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. Their allegiance was to the king alone.
In those days, it was the fools who exposed folly. Even here in the United States where no king has ever held court, we have had near equivalents of court jesters, but not the real thing. Americans came to think of a particularly famous circus clown named Dan Rice as President Abraham Lincoln’s court jester, since Lincoln often openly expressed his appreciation of Rice’s wit. But, of course, Rice was part of a traveling circus, and he was usually somewhere else than Washington, D.C.
Like Rice, the quintessential American humorist of the 20th century, Will Rogers, had easy access to the Oval Office, in this case when it was inhabited by Woodrow Wilson. Rogers, the cowboy from Oklahoma, claimed that he was not a member of an organized political party; he was a Democrat. Politics was a fertile field for Rogers’ wit, and like most presidents Wilson had his share of trouble with the U.S. senate. He 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 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 only to the president. Most of them have recognizable biases toward one or the other party. Then, in September 2010, the Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert, in his faux right-wing persona, sat in a chair facing the House committee contemplating immigration policy. In the course of cracking many outrageous comments, he made what was in fact a serious plea for looking after undocumented farm workers — just what a good jester is supposed to do, though the representatives, unaccustomed to such a witness, seemed mostly confused. One is reminded of another Will Rogers comment: “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
The Obama White House does have a person who has the daily (and almost constant) access that is the common denominator of all court jesters. He is Reggie Love, the president’s so-called body man. Love is always around the president with all manner of potentially needed supplies from aspirin to a spare necktie, a walking variety store. He and the president start most days together on the basketball court. It is not clear how much, if any, advice Reggie Love gives to the president, but Obama is quoted as saying Love is like “a little brother.” And 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 (read tiny) precedent for what I am about to suggest — that there be an official position in the executive branch: the Presidential Court Jester. To insulate this office holder 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 rights of attendance to all presidential affairs guaranteed.
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, another Austrian duke called together his council to discuss his aim to launch 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.
Jake Page and his wife, Susanne, a photographer, produced the lavishly illustrated book HOPI in 1982, representing the first general photography allowed on the reservation since 1910. A 25th anniversary edition is now available.