April 29, 2013

Peggy Noonan believes Obama “fatigue” is setting in, and maybe she’s right. He is in his fifth year of prime-time, and that’s a long run by today’s standards. Ms. Noonan made her point recently in the context of George W. Bush’s return to celebrate the opening of his library. Mr. Bush understands something very few other politicians do: You can’t be missed if you don’t go away. So maybe Mr. Bush will enjoy some reappraisal in syndication.

But this observer has not yet grown tired of watching Mr. Obama, particularly in settings like Saturday’s White House correspondents dinner. To some, the dinner represents the worst of Washington incest. But Saturday night also displayed the best of the president. He was the funniest man in the room and the most comforting.  Republicans, of course,  view President Obama’s comedic routines as further evidence of his fiddling while America burns, but I have a different observation. Comedy is not just about having the best writers, although Obama certainly has access to those. Nor is just about timing, a skill which the president also has in abundance. Rather, great comedy often comes from the ability to see the absurd and make fun of it, rather than fear or disdain it.

I also think being funny comes from a sense of irony and detachment, and Obama is certainly  the most ironically detached president since John F. Kennedy. There is something very appealing about that. Mr. Obama is, like Kennedy, intellectually curious, aloof and capable of making fun of himself and others. Kennedy’s sense of irony came, perhaps, from his constant illnesses and reminders of mortality; Obama’s may come from his struggle to integrate a self born from different races and cultures.

Consider the president’s jokes, which he didn’t write, but chose and delivered impeccably. “These days, I look in the mirror and I have to admit I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be.” Or the one about Sheldon Adelson and his $100 million spend in the 2012 election to defeat Obama. The president suggested that Adelson might have considered offering it directly instead to Mr. Obama as an incentive to drop out. “I probably wouldn’t have taken it, but I would have thought about it. Michelle would have taken it. You think I’m kidding.” Or his direct hit on Republicans and their outreach to minorities: “Look, call me self-centered but I can think of one they can start with.”  Check it out, if you haven’t seen the whole speech already. The president killed it.

And the president’s performance is worth watching until the end where he calls upon the lucky and powerful Americans in attendance at this annual affair — the journalists, movie-makers, actors and politicians — to remember, ” to value those things that I suspect led most of us to do the work that we do in the first place — because we believed in something that was true, and we believed in service, and the idea that we can have a lasting, positive impact on the lives of the people around us.”

Whatever this president’s ultimate mark on history, it can be said now, as was once said of John F. Kennedy, that he is in color, while often everyone else is in black and white.