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American politics needs a sense of humor

For a long time it’s seemed that there is something wrong with politics in America. Some think it’s the hyper-partisan environment in the Capitol. Others think it all has to do with gotcha media and the 24 hour news cycle. While others say that it’s the constant chasing after dollars to get reelected.

However, there is something even more fundamental that’s gone wrong with American politics and that’s that we seemed to have lost our sense of humor. Many members show up in Washington so strident and so serious that the notion of making a quip, or even telling a story, seems outside their ability.

Others have simply become frightened that a joke or one-liner might backfire and overnight be spread over cyberspace. It’s almost as if humor, and being funny, has been purged from the political landscape.
That’s a shame, because when things get tough, when tempers flare, or when someone’s ego needs readjusting, there is nothing like a good story or a funny joke to set things right.

Some of our most famous American politicians were masters of the art of humor. Many times it was delightfully self-deprecating. Abraham Lincoln, not generally considered a handsome man, once said in response to the accusation that he was two-faced, “do you think if I was two faced that I would be using this one?” Even Calvin Coolidge, perhaps one of our most reserved Presidents, when asked why he insisted on a two-hour nap each day replied, “When you’re asleep you can’t make any bad decisions.”

Ronald Reagan was so given to one liners and jokes that he frequently got himself in trouble. But Reagan never seemed to mind and he never gave up on using his ad libbed quips. One of his more notable, making fun of his own relaxed management style, came when he said, “With so many trouble spots around the world, I’ve told my aides that if they hear of any trouble they should wake me up immediately. Even when I’m in a Cabinet meeting.”

While most politicians might rehearse their one-liners and yes Reagan did plan some, most of the Gipper’s remarks were spontaneous. Rather amazingly when he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1981, his comment to his wife Nancy as they entered the emergency room at George Washington Hospital was, “Sorry honey I forgot to duck.”

Everett Dirksen, the famous Senator from Illinois, coined a phrase that’s stuck around for a long time. “A million here, a million there, and after a while you’re talking about real money.” It wasn’t rehearsed and it was worthy of Abraham Lincoln.

British politics has always had a wry edge and one of the best practitioners was Winston Churchill. He once referred to the Labour Party Leader, Clement Atlee, as a “sheep in sheep’s clothing.”

Though perhaps one of the most famous was when a lady Member of Parliament told him, “Winston, if you were my husband I would put poison in your coffee.” To which he responded, “Madam, if I were your husband, I would drink it.”

Al Gore wasn’t anyone’s idea of a humorous Vice President. But, there were times when he managed to step out of that rigid persona. Shortly after his narrow defeat in the 2000 Presidential Election he introduced himself to an audience with “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States of America.” It suddenly, as humor often does, made him seem more human and far more likable. If only he could have done that during the campaign.

In 1996, during a budget standoff with Congress that had closed a large part of the government, Bill Clinton and several Congressional leaders had gone on an official trip on Air Force One. On the trip home, as the plane was parking at Andrews Air Force Base, the President was told by a reporter that Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, was miffed because he hadn’t been invited to the Presidential cabin. The Speaker said that if he had, he might have been willing to resolve the deadlock. When Clinton heard this he responded, “If I had known that I would have let him fly the plane.”

Political quips, jokes, and one-liners have the potential to become history. They can diffuse a crisis or poke fun at another politician. Many of the most memorable weren’t particularly harsh. They were just funny. More often than not, the person on the receiving side laughed as well.

However, today, save for jokes written by speech writers, humor seems to be off-limits in American politics. In 2001, former Virginia U.S. Senator John Warner, talking to his own Republican Party at the Virginia GOP’s annual advance, urged his party to stop throwing “more coal on.” Instead, he encouraged them to lighten up a little, have some fun, and not be afraid to tell a joke once in a while. This sounds like good advice to anyone in politics. Perhaps, if once in a while, instead of taking themselves so seriously, 21st century politicians could learn to laugh a little, at themselves and at each other, then maybe Washington wouldn’t be as gridlocked as it is now.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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