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Humorless politics a sad sign of our times

Greg Nash

Where has all the humor gone in American politics? Sure, that may sound like a column for the dog days of late August, but I think our current humorlessness actually says quite a bit about the state of American politics.

It wasn’t too long ago that Bob Dole, Morris K. Udall, Alan Simpson, Bob Strauss and Ted Kennedy brought a welcome levity to politics, as did presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Humor can offer a respite.

“Gentlemen why do you not laugh?” Abraham Lincoln asked his cabinet during the Civil War. “With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night if I did not laugh, I should die.” He was the model; when accused of being two faced, Lincoln responded, “If I had two faces would I be wearing this one?” 

Politics today are downright dour. 

Mark Shields, who as a columnist, commentator and earlier a political strategist was unsurpassed for his keen humor as well as political insights, offers an explanation: “Contemporary politicians lack the sense of self or the self-confidence to use humor. Every issue is of gravity, and any use of humor might suggest not taking the issue being discussed seriously enough.”

The upshot, he says, is “our politics is more grim as a result of the absence of humor, less interesting, and our politicians are a lot more self-serious, even self-important.”

Dick Flavin is a legendary Boston humorist and former television commentator who has written speeches for prominent Democrats like Ted Kennedy. He traces much of this overbearing seriousness to Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House: “He rose to prominence by preaching that politics is war and that the other side should be treated as enemies, to be destroyed at all costs. The loss of our sense of humor is collateral damage.”

Self-deprecating humor used to be an effective tool. “If you can make fun of yourself, it says ‘I’m just like you,’” notes former Republican humor speech writer, Landon Parvin.

Eric Schnure, a Washington-based consultant who has written many humor speeches, mainly for Democratic politicians but also a few Republicans, agrees: “The goal no longer is to define yourself as witty and appeal to all while scoring a point. It’s now solely to score the point.”

A reprise, familiar mainly to us old-timers is revealing; try to imagine any of this from today’s politicians.

Self-deprecation was a staple of the Kennedys. I remember covering Ted Kennedy in the1970s when he was campaigning for Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia. The brother of the former president said he was shocked that a young man — Rockefeller — would run for high office trading on a famous name.

Before the 1960 presidential primaries, Joseph Kennedy’s willingness to spend big money on his son’s race was controversial. At one Gridiron dinner, JFK read a telegram supposedly from his father: “Don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

When criticized for soaring deficits, Reagan replied, “I am not worried about the deficit. It is big enough to take care of itself.”

Making light of your own party was a winner. Bob Dole once quipped that “Only a Republican would think that the best part of Viagra is the fact that you could make money off it.” Arizona’s Morris Udall, a Democrat, said he wanted to be buried in Chicago — so he could “remain active in politics.”

One of my favorite moments in years of interminable Washington press dinners was sitting next to Udall, a liberal Democrat, as he marveled at the timing of conservative Republican Alan Simpson.

The Wyoming Republican once noted that in “your country club, your church and business, about 15 percent of the people are screwballs, lightweights and boobs. You would not want those people unrepresented in Congress.”

My favorite story is the one Udall used to tell about the politician who was visiting an Indian reservation right before an election. If they voted for him, he promised a new hospital for the reservation: “Goomwah, Goomwah,” the tribe responded. Udall said the politician then added if they voted for him, they’d get a new school: “Goomwah, Goomwah” was the enthusiastic reply. As the self-satisfied politician was leaving by the horse corral, Udall said, the tribal chief cautioned him to be careful not to step in the goomwah.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

–Updated on August 30 at 2:04 p.m.

Tags Alan Simpson American humor American politics Bob Dole Jay Rockefeller John F. Kennedy Jokes Laughter national politics Newt Gingrich political comedy Ronald Reagan zingers

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