Mark Shields: Laughter, still pretty good medicine
“There are three things which are real,” said John F. Kennedy, “God, human folly and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.” As a national candidate, the then-senator did just that. Sensitive to the charge that his multi-millionaire father was trying to buy the Democratic presidential nomination for him, Jack Kennedy quipped at Washington’s annual Gridiron dinner: “I just received a telegram from my father. He says, ‘Don’t buy one more vote than you need. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for a landslide.'”
This last Saturday night, the Gridiron Club, a group of 65 Washington journalists (of whom I am one), held its 130th winter dinner, where, in satirical skits and songs, the powerful and the pompous are gently skewered. Each year, the dinner has just three speakers: one Democrat, one Republican and the president of the United States (or his designated pinch-hitter).
Self-deprecating humor with which a public figure can publicly make fun of himself is always well-received. Nobody was more effectively self-deprecating than President Ronald Reagan. Aware of the press speculation that perhaps he, then in his eighth decade and with an official work schedule which, by Washington standards, was thin, might not be “up” to the physical demands of the presidency, Reagan countered with a memorable one-liner: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”
Wisconsin governor and undeclared Republican presidential candidate, Scott Walker, began by addressing controversy around former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s assertion, “I do not believe President Obama loves America.” After doing so, Gov. Walker stated he didn’t “really know whether Obama loves America.” At the Gridiron dinner he added, “I believe President Obama loves America and every single American … except Rudy Giuliani.”
Insisting he was no narrow partisan, Walker continued: “I do have a lot of friends who are Democrats. I even have Hillary Clinton’s private email. It’s HillaryClinton@WallStreet.com. You know the best part of that joke? Elizabeth Warren gave it to me.”
Virginia governor and 2008 chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Barack Obama, Terry McAuliffe, made light of his recent fall from a horse on a family vacation where he suffered seven broken ribs and a punctured lung, “That’s gravity for you.” Then, referring to the Wisconsin governor’s refusal to commit on evolution, added “Or as Scott walker calls it, ‘the theory of gravity.” McAuliffe continued “John Boehner wanted to attend tonight, but he can’t get anywhere without 100 votes from Nancy Pelosi.” He didn’t spare the leader of his own party: “Republicans, Democrats, the press — it can be dog eat dog out there. And, like the president, I’ve eaten my share.”
President Obama was relaxed as he acknowledged his own aging since 2008: “Back then I was the young, tech-savvy candidate of the future. Now I’m yesterday’s news and Hillary has got a server in her house. I didn’t even know you could have one of those in your house.” Mischievously, Mr. Obama chastised Gov. Walker for saying he didn’t know whether the president loved America: “Think about it, Scott, if I did not love America, I wouldn’t have moved here from Kenya.” Then, without specifically addressing the geriatric tilt to the Gridiron Club membership, he said that after his party’s sweeping 2014 defeats, Democrats had concluded “we have to spend more time focused on older white voters — which is why I am here (tonight).”
If you’re smiling, it’s tough to snarl. No history was made on this Saturday night, but, just perhaps, the toxic level in our politics, at least for a few hours, was lowered.