The Eight Best Practical Jokes Pulled by Presidents

Andrew Jackson taught his parrot curse words so as to embarrass his guests
The Eight Best Practical Jokes Pulled by Presidents

Today, presidential politics are painfully unfunny — heavy emphasis on painfully. But over the course of American history, there have been some lighthearted, objectively funny moments from presidents of both political parties. In fact, some presidents were as well-versed in practical jokes as they were in speechmaking, kissing babies and all the other pandering they needed to do to reach the White House. 

Here are eight of the best times they punk’d those around them like a regular ol’ Ashton Kutcher…

Andrew Jackson

Presidential historian Louis Picone, author of The President Is Dead!: The Extraordinary Stories of the Presidential Deaths, Final Days, Burials, and Beyond and Grant’s Tomb: The Epic Death of Ulysses S. Grant and the Making of an American Pantheon, tells me, “Andrew Jackson may be the first practical-joker president. He trained his parrot to curse. Then, when people would come visit him, the parrot would start cursing; Jackson enjoyed watching them in these awkward moments. The parrot was also kicked out of Jackson’s funeral for cursing. They actually stopped the service and had the bird removed.” 

Ronald Reagan

Picone says that Reagan had a practical joke he liked to play at Camp David for new staff members. He would have a glass of wine at dinner, then he would begin to act drunk and slur his speech. Once the new person started to worry that the president had had too much to drink, Reagan would straighten up and joke, “And they say I wasn’t a good actor.”

Barack Obama

“Shortly after Obama became president, Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia was doing a radio show, and Obama called in anonymously. He was introduced as ‘Barry from D.C.,’” explains Picone. “Unfortunately, he blew it, because the second he was put on the air, Obama said, ‘This is actually the President of the United States calling.’ It had the makings of a great joke, but he couldn’t pull it off.”

George W. Bush

When Picone was at a panel discussion at the Bush Presidential Library, some of Bush’s aides told a story about Bush being scheduled to meet with Bono to talk about world hunger. The aides were unsure if Bush knew who Bono was, so they asked him exactly that. To which Bush replied, “Yeah, he was married to Cher.” Bush let them squirm for a minute before he made clear that he knew that the U2 frontman wasn’t the deceased Sonny Bono.

Ulysses S. Grant

“President Grant was a very humble guy — and a very funny guy,” says Picone. “Many of his jokes were at his wife Julia’s expense. She even wrote in her memoir, ‘He was forever playing such practical jokes on poor me.’” 

Most of these were cute jokes between a loving couple, but Picone says Grant’s best joke came when he was touring the world after his presidency in the late 1870s. “Grant just wanted to travel as a common tourist and walk around the streets anonymously, but everywhere he went, he was treated like a visiting head of state,” Picone explains. “Many of the places he went, though, nobody knew what Grant looked like, so they’d be surprised by this short guy in a plain suit as opposed to someone in a general’s uniform. 

“For parts of the trip, Grant was traveling aboard Navy ships, and he’d often ask the officers if they’d like to join him at state dinners. When they did, Grant noticed that people would often cheer for the guy in the uniform, thinking it was him. After a while, he would intentionally tell an officer, ‘Today, you’re going to wear the uniform,’ and everyone would be cheering for the officer, thinking he was Grant while Grant would just sit back and laugh.”

Bill Clinton

As George W. Bush’s staff was settling into their White House offices after the election, they discovered that the Ws were missing from many of their keyboards. Picone does note, however, that “it may not have been the Clintons themselves. It could have just been their staff.”

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge was known for being taciturn, yet behind that silent exterior was a man with a rather childish sense of humor. As Time reported during his presidency, “In the wall of the north portion of the White House is a bell. On a recent afternoon, President Coolidge pressed this bell repeatedly, and scampered quickly away. To the north portico rushed a detail of Secret Service men, to whom the bell’s ringing was a summons to come at once. From a distance, the president watched their confusion, heard them ask the Secret Service man on patrol duty why he had rung the bell, and heard the patrolman’s denial of any bell-ringing. After the guards had dispersed, the president stole back, again pressed the button, again trotted away, and chuckled as the previous scene repeated itself. 

“Pleased, the president several times repeated his little prank. Eventually, the Secret Service detail discovered the source of the false alarms, and put in another bell in a spot unknown to the president.”

Lyndon B. Johnson

“LBJ was the ultimate presidential practical joker,” says Picone. Case in point: When tourists would come to his Texas ranch, he’d drive them around the property. When he got near a lake, he'd pretend the brakes were out and plunge the vehicle into the water. It was then that they’d discover his car was an amphibious vehicle that doubled as a boat.

Even in death, LBJ was a prankster. For starters, per Picone, “There’s a report where he took someone from Newsweek out to see his future gravesite. He then unzipped his fly, pissed on his future gravesite and said, ‘That’s where I’d be if Goldwater won in ‘64.’” He was also very specific about where he wanted to be buried. “When they started digging,” Picone explains, “they hit a pipe. They called the caretaker, and the caretaker said, ‘Yeah, LBJ knew there was a pipe there when he chose this spot.’ Whether it was a practical joke or not, it’s been interpreted as LBJ getting the last laugh.”

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