Mark Shields: A political year desperate for humor

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

Boy, do I miss Ronald Reagan’s robust sense of self-confidence, which enabled him to use self-deprecating humor to confound his political adversaries. In 1987, after his presidency had hit a serious rough spot with the exposure of the Iran-Contra weapons-for-hostages deal and with a publicized feud between the first lady, Nancy Reagan, and the White House chief of staff, Donald Regan, President Reagan went to Washington’s Gridiron dinner.

Here is how the Gipper dealt with his political problems then:

“1986 was the year of hostile takeover attempts, inside maneuverings, high-stakes intrigue — and that was just at the White House.”

“With the Iran thing occupying everybody’s attention, I was thinking. Do you remember the flap when I said, ‘We begin bombing in five minutes’? Remember when I fell asleep during my audience with the pope? … Boy, those were the good old days.”

“Nancy and Don at one point tried to patch things up. They met privately over lunch — just the two of them and their food tasters.”

With the exception of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — who said of his own failed White House run, “I got out because I ran out of money; if you want to get money out of politics, you should have joined my campaign” — the 2016 presidential field has been conspicuous for its humorlessness.

On March 5, the Gridiron Club, a group of 65 journalists (to which I belong), held its 131st annual dinner. By tradition, there are just three speakers: one Democrat, one Republican and the president or his designated pinch hitter. This year, President Barack Obama sent Vice President Joe Biden, who brought some laughter to the room, even at his own expense: “You know, I’ve always ranked among the poorest members of Congress. … It didn’t bother me much before — until I learned my net worth was even less than Bernie Sanders’. Look, when a socialist has more money than you, you know you’ve been doing something really wrong.”

The VP saluted Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz (the senator from Texas who boasts about how unpopular he is with all of Washington) for being “an inspiration to every kid in America who worries that he’ll never be able to run for president because nobody likes him. … I told Barack: ‘If you really, really want to remake the Supreme Court, nominate Cruz. Before you know it, you’ll have eight vacancies.'”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was the Republican speaker, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and his identical twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, were the Democratic speakers. Haley, whose parents both emigrated from India, noted that she had given the GOP response to the president’s State of the Union address but then said, “But I won’t really feel like I’ve made it until Donald Trump demands my birth certificate.” She acknowledged “the Castro twins. Truly wonderful guys. Didn’t Ben Carson do a great job of separating them?” She found much in common between this year’s Oscar-nominated movies and Washington: “‘The Big Short’ attacked Wall Street — or as Bernie Sanders calls it, the feel-good movie of the year.”

Joaquin Castro asked brother Julian, “I’ve always wondered: Why do people take such an instant dislike to Ted Cruz?” Julian: “Probably because it saves time.” The evening provided a few chuckles in the midst of this dreary campaign — but nothing to compete with Reagan, who, after his tax cuts had failed to generate the promised tax revenues to balance the federal budget and instead had led to giant deficits, explained: “I’m not worried about the deficit. It’s big enough to take care of itself.”

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