On this day in 1909, two of the least evidently funny men in American history claimed to appreciate, deeply, the jokers. President William Howard Taft told the American Press Humorists’ Association, in his most jocular vein,

Tell them for me that they can be engaged in no better vocation than making people laugh. Humor is like the buffer between two heavy railroad cars. It relieves the jolts of life. It is a shock absorber. It makes the journey through the years easier, and brightens the pathway all along the route. We Americans could not get along without humor.

I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but when someone tells you earnestly how important humor is, it’s because they’re not very humorous.

Taft was, perhaps, too often the butt of unfair jokes. Despite his legendary bulk, he was an energetic man; when governor of the Philippines he cabled Secretary of War Elihu Root, “Just rode a mule a hundred miles over the mountains. Feeling fine.” Which of course prompted Elihu Root to ask earnestly by cable, “Glad to hear you are well; but how is the mule?”

The other man who sent his good wishes was John D. Rockefeller, who showed a glimmering of wit by avoiding Taft’s homiletics and sticking to business:

Please present my kindest regards and best wishes to the American Press Humorists’ Association, assembled in Buffalo for their annual meeting. I regret that I cannot be present.

But then, the Times added, “Mr. Rockefeller is a member of the association.”

As a biography of Nelson Rockefeller says, “There is no accurate record to show the quality of Mr. [John D.] Rockefeller s humor,” though Nelson and the other grandsons gave a general description of the old man’s jests:

Often his stories were deadpan accounts of some sad cir
cumstance into which an acquaintance had fallen, and occasionally he would lift the napkin to wipe an imaginary tear from his eye. But the stories always ended up with an unexpected twist that made it all a huge joke and sent the children into screams of laughter.

Which sounds about right.

“Taft Praises Funny Men,” NYT 9/10/09, p. 7.