Mark Shields: The serious matter of political humor
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only American elected president four times, had an often overlooked strength that both sustained him under the torrent of abuse he endured and served to thwart his dyspeptic political opponents: FDR could laugh at the jeers directed at him. He framed and showed off one cartoon from Esquire magazine showing a little girl, an obvious tattletale, telling her mother that her brother had just written a dirty word on the sidewalk — ”Roosevelt.”
A later U.S. president who had himself proudly voted for FDR all four times, Republican Ronald Reagan, had the same gift. Criticized by captious members of the press corps for his leisurely work schedule, which rarely began before 10 a.m. and almost always was over before 5 p.m., President Reagan responded at a Washington press dinner: ”It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”
Americans are not looking for the quickest wit in the room or the king of one-liners to be their commander in chief. But voters almost always prefer the presidential candidate with a good sense of humor, because a sense of humor — especially the ability to laugh at yourself and your side — strongly indicates a healthy perspective on life and a minimal amount of self-importance. This should not surprise us, because our nation, after all, was created in an open rebellion against imperial authority.
Some observers were surprised that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who, as a presidential candidate, had called for the abolition of the Energy Department — was confirmed as secretary of energy by such a big margin in the Senate, 62-37. I think part of Perry’s appeal is his capacity to laugh at himself. After his failed campaign, he reminisced: ”People forget that I once led the Republican primary race. It was the most exhilarating three hours of my life.” And of his standing next to Mitt Romney on the debate stage, Perry confided: ”I kept waiting for him to say, ‘Pardon me. Would you have any Grey Poupon?”’
In this relentlessly sour, even surly, political time, humor is not just welcome but needed. At the most recent and 132nd dinner sponsored annually by the Gridiron Club, a group of 65 Washington journalists (of whom I am one), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a carom that needled both major political parties, noted that President Donald Trump ”has appointed so many people from Goldman Sachs to high positions that there’s nobody left there to listen to Hillary’s speeches.” Then Pelosi added: ”This White House has more drama among rich people than a Jane Austen novel. In fact, I’m told the Secret Service code names for President Trump and (chief strategist Steve) Bannon are ‘Pride’ and ‘Prejudice.”’
The Republican speaker was Joni Ernst, a 46-year-old U.S. senator from Iowa, who told those at the dinner who ”don’t know” her that she is 30 years old, is the current Miss Iowa and can run a mile in 4 1/2 minutes. ”I love alternative facts,” she said. She read a message that President Trump had supposedly just sent to her on Twitter: ”Since when are there THREE branches of government? Unfair!” Of her senior colleagues, Ernst cracked, ”The men in the Senate are so old Bernie Sanders calls me jailbait.”
Voters obviously do not always require that their leaders display a self-deprecating sense of humor. Onetime White House speechwriter Jerry Doolittle, who had the tough task of writing material for the quite serious President Jimmy Carter, later observed that ”making Jimmy Carter funny was like being FDR’s tap dance coach.” President Trump apparently remains that rare individual without either an embarrassment gene or a sense of humor. And that, sadly, is no laughing matter.