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June 18, 2004

Humor in politics

Here's a little something I wrote over the last couple of days, inbetween working on financial planning software (sigh). I submitted it to the Globe and Mail but haven't heard back yet. Dude's got until 2pm and then I'm trying the National Post...

UPDATE: Never did hear back from the Globe. The guy at the Post said it's a nice piece but I missed the Reagan boat by a couple of days. Shouldn't've waited for a reply from the Globe I guess.

In recent days public figures have been falling over each other in a headlong rush to be heard praising former president Ronald Reagan. Republicans and Democrats, Americans and Canadians alike have heaped lavish glory, and no facet of his personality has been more often cited than his sense of humor.

Reagan was a funny guy, on the record and off. “Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement,” he once told gathered journalists. He clearly recognized the efficacy of humor in making those around him more comfortable. But Reagan also grasped, more than any politician since, how humor could be employed to defuse even the most controversial of statements.

When questioned about America’s surging debt Reagan famously replied, “I’m not worried about the deficit. It’s big enough to take care of itself.” This was no cheap gag. Reagan’s attachment to Keynesian economics is well-enough understood to say that he probably didn’t care about the deficit, but he knew he couldn’t just come out and say that. By wrapping what amounts to an incredibly important policy statement inside a joke Reagan lessened its impact considerably. It’s hard to criticize with a smile on your face, and even harder to demonize someone who makes us laugh. Could anyone other than Chris Rock or Bill Cosby slam African-American culture so hard? Bill Maher used to say, on his ABC show Politically Incorrect, “it’s all been satirized for your protection,” but really he meant his protection. We allowed him to say the things he said only because we laughed.

Another aspect of humor Reagan understood was its ability to neutralize or even reverse his perceived weaknesses. In a 1984 debate against 56-year-old political veteran Walter Mondale, amid concerns that Reagan (the oldest president ever to have served) might not be able to withstand the grueling schedule for another term, he quipped that he would not “make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale thought it was funny, until he lost in a landslide.

Often the most successful and beloved politicians have been those with a well-developed sense of humor. Winston Churchill was a fine orator and a widely respected historian and author, but it’s his witticisms that are most often quoted. He was often cruelly dismissive of his opponents on a very personal level, but he like Reagan knew that an attack couched in humor is not only well received but also well remembered. “A modest man with much to be modest about,” said Churchill of his rival Clement Atlee, and described how “an empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing St, and when the door was opened, Atlee got out.” In contrast, Atlee’s remark that “fifty percent of Winston is genius, fifty percent bloody fool” comes across as petulant envy.

Humor is missing in action from today’s political rhetoric. Tuesday evening’s debate between our party leaders was almost entirely bereft of levity, aside from Paul Martin’s jab at Jack Layton, when he enquired, “did your handlers tell you to talk all the time?”. Layton, probably genuinely offended, responded hotly and a touch sanctimoniously by accusing Martin of making light of the issue.

Are our politicians simply unfunny people? It’s statistically improbable that all four of the leaders we watched Tuesday have no sense of humor whatsoever. More likely, humor has fallen out of favor in contemporary politics. As CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield said during a 2002 forum on the subject, humor is the “nitroglycerin of politics: it is very powerful, very dangerous, and has to be handled with great care.” It’s easy for a joke to be misinterpreted, or for it to fall flat on its face, leaving the deliverer waiting, embarrassingly, for laughter that never arrives. Better to keep it straight. This is serious business, politics, as Layton’s trembling indignation testifies.

But does anyone really believe that, powerful as it is, nitroglycerin should never be used? In skilled hands it can demolish obstacles and destroy enemies. Humor, as we’ve seen, can do the same. What’s more, a sense of humor is a very attractive character trait. Reagan’s knack for humor was, I contend, a major factor behind his popularity with both Republicans and Democrats. Funny people are easier to empathise with, and more immediately likeable, than the deadly serious. Most importantly, for politicians at least, they are also easier to forgive.

Of course, no-one wants a clown for a prime minister – Pierre Trudeau’s pirouette bordered on the ridiculous – but if the election coverage thus far has told us anything, it’s that we want a leader we can trust. In other words, we want someone like us, someone with whom we feel connected. Humor has the potential to bridge the gap between us and them more effectively than any other device.

So please, Mr Martin, Mr Harper, Mr Layton, Mr Harris, Mr Duceppe, amuse us once in a while. Amuse us deliberately, not just with your political pratfalls. Do that and it might well be you having the last laugh come June 28.


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