Local Sheriff Recycles a Terrible Presidential Assassination Joke

Plymouth County Sherriff McDonald recycled an old, tired line about Obama.

Plymouth County Sherriff Joe McDonald attended the Republicans’ rival St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in Scituate on Sunday, and he’s taking some serious criticism from left-leaning blogs for a joke he made suggesting that President Obama could help the nation by getting assassinated. The joke, it turns out, isn’t just bad—it’s also really, really old. According to an early edition of a Boston Globe article that has since removed the account, the joke goes like this:

McDonald offered a joke about Barack Obama being visited in a dream by three past presidents, who offered advice on how to improve the country. Lincoln’s advice: “Go to the theater.”

As Ted Nugent can tell you, joking about the assassination of a president typically doesn’t go over well. At the breakfast, McDonald’s line got “scattered laughter.” In the blogosphere, it’s getting condemnation.

St. Patricks Day breakfasts are a gauntlet for politicians to test out their best stand-up routines, so it’s notable that McDonald failed not just for tastelessness, but for stealing his comedy. Indeed, politicians have been making this joke—replacing Obama with whichever president they dislike—since at least the Reagan years. Rarely has it gone over well. And it’s not just an example of Republicans’ poor taste. Cruddy comedians on both sides of the aisle have made use of it. (You think it’s tasteless to make these jokes in the current era of gun violence, so imagine making it about a president who has actually already survived an assassination attempt!)

In 2000, ex-U.S. Representative Vin Weber warmed up the crowd at a George W. Bush rally by telling the joke about Bill Clinton. A National Journal report (accessed via Nexis) from the time reads:

Weber “then launched into a joke about how Clinton, concerned about how he’ll fare in the history books, is visited by the ghosts” of ex-Pres. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. He asks each for advice “on what he should do to be remembered well by historians.” Washington tells him “to never tell a lie” and Jefferson tells him “to cut the size of federal government.” And, said Weber, “drawing cheers from the crowd”: “Lincoln told him, ‘Go to the theater’”

A rather slanted entry on UrbanDictionary.com has Lincoln telling George W. Bush to “go to the theater.” About.com’s “Political Humor” section retools it such that Lincoln suggets Hillary Clinton get herself shot. Indeed, there’s evidence that the joke has filtered around partisan blogs and email forwards (you know, the kind sent from your great aunt’s AOL account that you delete without reading) for decades.

Lincoln’s ghost, according to these terrible jokesters, hasn’t much liked any of the presidents, Democrat or Republican, that succeeded him in the modern era. But we’re betting that Old Abe, famous for his own brand of sharp, off-color wit, would be even more disappointed with the guys peddling a line that doesn’t even make up for its inappropriateness with some smattering of originality. Poor effort, McDonald.