Mark Shields: Washington is suffering from acute humor deficit

By Mark Shields

As candidate and later as president, Ronald Reagan had a really good opening line, which almost invariably would make his audiences smile and softly chuckle: “As King Henry VIII said to each of his six wives, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t keep you long.'”

When first lady Nancy Reagan was openly displeased with her husband’s then-White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, President Reagan could quip to a press group that efforts were being made to patch up relations between his wife and his aide, that they had actually met for an off-the-record, private lunch, “just the two of them … and their food-tasters. “

Before political opponents could poke fun at his Hollywood background, Ronald Reagan would beat them to the punch by first quoting the reaction of movie studio boss Jack Warner, who upon being told that Reagan was running for governor of California, said: “All wrong. Jimmy Stewart for governor. Reagan for best friend.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am not nominating Mr. Reagan for Mount Rushmore. He twice, without my votes, won thumping presidential landslide victories. But what I do miss, besides the man’s infectious optimism and his being so obviously comfortable in his own skin, is the self-mocking humor he brought to our nation’s public life. That’s a delightful humor which is so sorely missing today.

You could write all the memorable one-liners of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on the back of a Post-it note and still have room for a list of President Barack Obama’s spontaneous, self-deprecating hits. Neither House Speaker John Boehner nor House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is known for delivering witty thigh-slappers. Washington and American political life are suffering from an acute humor deficit.

The last time I checked the polls, only one U.S. politician was rated favorably by Democratic, Republican and independent voters. That would be New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

Now in our hypersensitive, politically correct era, we understand that any comments about someone’s physical appearance are unacceptable and can lead to a severe reprimand from the nearest Human Resources czar. Because I have had too many second servings of Ben & Jerry’s, friendly critics and critical friends have said I, by actual count, have more chins than the San Francisco phonebook (drum roll). This somehow permits me to suggest a line to Gov. Christie, who as most people know, is overweight and publicly committed to losing a lot of pounds before the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary.

Taking a leaf from Ronald Reagan’s winning playbook, Christie could say something like this on a late-night talk show: People asked me what convinced me to seek medical help. Here’s how you know when you’re overweight. If you’re sitting in the bathtub and you see the water level in the toilet bowl starts to rise, you know you’ve got a problem!

What Christie could accomplish with such a self-deprecating (if mildly offending) line is what Ronald Reagan understood so intuitively — that once you have voluntarily laughed at your own publicly perceived shortcoming, then your political critics cannot, without looking like mean-spirited scolds who are piling on, seek to revisit the same subject.

Early in his first term, Reagan’s White House staff had failed to wake the president to inform him that two U.S. Navy fighter planes had shot down two attacking Libyan jets. Editorials and cartoons criticizing Reagan’s disengagement followed, which the Gipper eventually silenced by saying he had “laid down the law. From now on, when anything happens, no matter what time it is, wake me, even if it’s in the middle of a Cabinet meeting.”

It’s OK to smile.

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