Why Our Presidential Candidates Could Use a Sense of Humor
When did everybody become so humorless?
The idea that we’re just getting wound up for the final 13-month sprint of our political campaign has me thinking the unthinkable: SpongeBob SquarePants might be a viable TV option.
When did our presidential campaigns begin spanning a three-year period? And more importantly, when did our contenders become so earnest, humorless, and angry?
I heard a news pundit say, “We’ve got the biggest crisis ever in our country right now.”
We do have a crisis, but it’s not what the news pundit was talking about. Our crisis seems to be that America has lost its sense of humor. Too many candidates are coming across as scolds.
And that’s not what wins elections.
Robert Langley said in America’s Funniest Presidents, “Throughout America’s history politicians at all levels of government have used their wit and often self-deprecating sense of humor to ‘humanize’ and endear themselves to voters.”
Where is the endearment?
If the Democrats want to win, they are going to have to endear themselves to swing voters. The same goes for Republicans. But when the most entertaining part of a political debate is Cory Booker’s expression as Beto O’Rourke startles everybody by breaking into Spanish, there’s a problem.
Democrats are allowing Republicans, often depicted as the party of the unyielding self-righteous, to seem witty by comparison.
The New York Times touched on this in an article focused on which candidates’ supporters have a better sense of humor.
Nearly 300 people in Boston were enlisted to hear jokes. The jokes, encompassing a broad spectrum of humor from good, bad, and conventional to absurd, were presented to self-described Liberals and Conservatives.
The results surprised researchers.
According to the New York Times story, researchers expected to get a bigger laugh out of Liberals because Liberals had previously been reported as more flexible and open to new ideas. But Conservatives liked all the jokes more, leading researchers to ask, “Should Liberals start describing themselves as humor-challenged?”
Admittedly, the NYT article was written in 2008. Ten years later, NYT columnist Bret Stephens wrote “In public, Trump has almost no humor, even when the moment calls for it.” Who exhibits the best sense of humor is most likely a matter of opinion.
But despite the subjectivity involved in deciding what’s funny, the importance of humor shouldn’t be overlooked.
Ari Shapiro wrote in Not Just for Laughs: Why Humor Can be a Power Campaign Tool, “Humor is an essential tool in any politician’s kit — all the more so in an age of instant, constant media. It can disarm an opponent, woo a skeptical voter or pierce an argument.”
Maybe you think the situation is too dire, the consequences too serious to inject humor into the equation.
Maybe you believe the world is in such a mess that earnestness should not be abandoned for the sake of likeability.
Some people seem to think too much hinges on this unique and pivotal moment in our history to diffuse the gravity of it with jokes and punchlines.
But this unique and pivotal moment in history isn’t any more unique than other times.
The United States has been through a Civil War, two World Wars, a Great Depression, two impeachments and scandals too numerous to count. We don’t live in a placid, peaceful world.
Yet other leaders in other times retained a sense of humor that connected them with the electorate. They showed that while they took their jobs seriously, they didn’t take themselves too seriously.
Lyndon Johnson, talking about a biased media, said, “If one morning I walked on top of water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: President Can’t Swim.”
When told his wife was in prison, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “I’m not surprised, but what for?”
Ronald Reagan, questioned about his age, said, “I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Quotes from previous presidents show that grim times don’t have to make for grim leaders:
“I have long enjoyed the friendship and companionship of Republicans because I am by instinct a teacher, and I would like to teach them something.” Woodrow Wilson
“Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt.” Herbert Hoover
“Do you realize the responsibility I carry? I’m the only person standing between Richard Nixon and the White House.” John F. Kennedy
“My esteem, in this country, has gone up substantially. It is very nice now when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.” Jimmy Carter
“People say I’m indecisive but I don’t know about that.” George H. Bush
“Being President is like running a cemetery; you’ve got a lot of people under you and nobody’s listening.” Bill Clinton
“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” Abraham Lincoln
“Being President is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.” Lyndon Johnson
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Abraham Lincoln
“I hope you’re all Republicans.” Ronald Reagan speaking to surgeons as he entered the operating room following a 1981 assassination attempt.
“Who is Barack Obama? Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born in Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the planet earth.” Barack Obama
Our former presidents show us there is value in being less angry and sanctimonious. Maybe if our current crop of politicians improved their likeability quotient with humor, America could laugh again.
In addition to acting as a balm in challenging times, comedy is used to highlight politicians’ authenticity and to shape the public’s view of them.” Michelle Boston
With a little humor, we might find common ground despite opposing points of view. Maybe we could engage in productive dialogue that didn’t deteriorate into sarcastic tweets. We might even come to believe that one side was never always right or always wrong.
After all, it’s hard to be angry when you’re laughing.
(Presidential quotes compiled by Brandon Specktor in 19 Times the President was the Funniest Person in America and Presidential Wit and Wisdom in liveabout.com)