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Originally published Wednesday, December 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Often the target of jokes, Ford laughed right along

Gerald Ford claimed he became an authority on American humor after being skewered by those who used it for a living. He conducted a seminar...

The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun

Gerald Ford claimed he became an authority on American humor after being skewered by those who used it for a living.

He conducted a seminar on "Humor and the Presidency" at the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library in Michigan and wrote a book with that title from his office in Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in the 1980s.

But President Ford wasn't just a victim of humor, he became a skilled practitioner of the art.

President Ford, an all-star University of Michigan football player who was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, was probably the most athletic president in American history.

But, in 1975, he stumbled down the steps of Air Force One in Salzburg, Austria, while bands were playing and troops were being presented. Photographers captured the mishap and White House photographer David Kennerly quipped, "Nice of you to drop by."

Chevy Chase, as a major player on the new series "Saturday Night Live," made a career of the accident, making a stumbling pratfall part of his usual entrance.

Critics claimed President Ford couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. A popular joke was, "Jerry's in the study hall walking up and down and chewing gum like crazy."

President Ford reacted to Chase's jokes by sending his press secretary, Ron Nessen, to play along with him on "Saturday Night Live." He explained in his book, "I believe it is always better to err on the side of more exposure and access rather than less. At that time, the media and the general public still resented any hint of 'imperial' trappings in connection with the presidency or the White House."

President Ford's best comeback to Chase came at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner in 1975.

When emcee Bob Hope introduced him, President Ford got up from the table, "accidentally" caught the tablecloth in his trousers and dumped silverware in Chase's lap. As he approached the podium, he pretended to trip, prompting the pages of the speech he was carrying to fly into the audience.

When he got to the microphone and the laughter began to diminish, President Ford reached into his coat pocket, pulled out the real script and said, "Good evening. I'm Gerald Ford and you're not."

Retired Adm. Bill Narva, of Palm Springs, was at that dinner. He said the crowd, and Chase, broke up at President Ford's routine.

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"I was told a long time ago," said Narva, "once you start making 'The Johnny Carson Show' or 'Jay Leno' or 'Letterman,' it's done. You can't get it back anymore. That was really a gross exaggeration of Jerry Ford, and he sort of laughed and giggled about it. He never took it seriously."

Hope was one of President Ford's closest friends, but the comic treated him as mercilessly as he did any other president.

When President Ford was roundly ridiculed for encouraging people to wear "WIN" buttons as part of a plan to "Whip Inflation Now," Hope said of President Ford's trip to Japan, "Hirohito gave the president a jeweled sword with a crest of the Imperial Order of the Setting Sun, and the President gave him a WIN button. The president told him, 'Millions of Americans are wearing these.' And Hirohito said, 'I know. We make them.' "

When the Fords moved to the desert, Hope had a quip for that, too.

"Betty is known as our first lady of the desert," he said, "and Jerry is known as the last man out of the sand trap."

President Ford became known for his self-deprecating humor, and he often used it to defuse serious situations. After accepting the resignation of his secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, for telling an offensive joke, President Ford made reference to it after being introduced by Hope at a National Entertainment Conference in Washington.

"I have only one thing to say about a program that calls for me to follow Bob Hope: ridiculous," President Ford said. "Bob Hope has stage presence, comedy timing and the finest writers in the business. I'm standing here in a rented tuxedo with three jokes from Earl Butz."

President Ford got better as a comic with age. He was roasted in a benefit for the Betty Ford Center in 1989 by a dais including Clint Eastwood, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President Ford's son Steven.

Eastwood, who escorted President Ford out of a limousine in handcuffs, said he was inspired to create his most famous line while golfing with the president. Watching him set up a tough shot, he said he exclaimed, "This will make my day."

President Ford sounded like Hope with his rebuttal. His opening remark was, "I haven't felt this good since I fell down an airport ramp." He said to Eastwood, "Dirty Harry is the only man I know who fires six times and the last one is the warning shot."

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