"Never make people laugh," James Garfield was advised by his fellow Republican, Sen. Thomas Corwin. "If you would succeed in life, you must be solemn, solemn as an ass. All great monuments are built over solemn asses."
Which may be why nobody today is anthologizing Richard Nixon jokes.
Adlai Stevenson, on the other hand, preferred the light touch: "Humor helps to distinguish the really bright and thoughtful, and also the humble, if you please, from the self-conscious and the self-righteous presumptuous type."
Which also may explain the dearth of Nixon jokes.
In Washington, a sense of humor can be a very serious matter. In fact, it is safer to question politicians' patriotism, IQ or sexual prowess than to express any doubts about their sense of humor. In contemporary American politics, a recognized sense of humor means its possessor is a nice person, a nice guy. And while nice guys may not win the World Series, in politics they often do get to be lieutenant governors.
For disciples of Stevenson or those who wish to be successful in Washington's political circles, here are (what else in this town?) a few guidelines to getting laughs -- and getting elected. 1. Be Self-Deprecatory.
Self-deprecating opening lines can deflate any negative perception of self-importance or can neutralize a hostile audience. Self-deprecation works particularly well for the remote and the powerful presidents or presidential candidates. Such humor can change a King into an Everyman, and sometimes can defuse an embarrassing political situation.
Probably no one was better at this than John F. Kennedy. When he nominated his 35-year-old brother -- who had a modest legal background -- to be attorney general, the proposal drew loud and substantial opposition. JFK took the edge off this way: "I see nothing wrong with giving Robert some legal experience as attorney general before he goes out to practice law."
Earlier, at the outset of his national campaign when opponents were accusing his millionaire family of trying to buy the nomination and the White House, Kennedy told a Washington Gridiron dinner: "I have just received the following telegram from my generous daddy. It says, "Dear Jack: Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I'm gong to pay for a landslide.""
After his decidedly non-landslide victory, President Kennedy spoke to the conservative National Association of Manufacturers: "In the last campaign most of the members of this luncheon group today supported my opponent -- except for a few who were under the impression I was my father's son."
For this form of humor to work, the characteristic or incident at which the speaker is poking fun must be well known. For example, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger frequently disarmed audiences by kidding about his own overdeveloped ego.It worked, because Kissinger is so vain he makes former Texas governor John Connally look like Mother Teresa.
At the 1983 Washington Gridiron dinner, always a tough house to work, Ohio's Sen. John Glenn, who has been characterized by some as a prudish Eagle Scout, announced at the outset that he wanted to correct a misimpression. "First, let me say that I am not dull. [Pause] Boring, maybe -- but not dull." That simple line made the crowd feel good, or better, about John Glenn. 2. Have No Fear of Being Too Topical.
Washington audiences are composed of news addicts. If they have not heard the very latest news, weather and sports, people in a Washington audience will never admit it. So anxiety -- the fear of not "getting it" -- works to the humorous speaker's advantage. When in doubt about the meaning of an obviously topical line, the Washington audience will laugh anyway, out of sheer nervousness.
This means that much Washington humor is highly perishable, with a shelf-life approximating that of an uncapped Miller Lite. Nobody in Washington is presently dining out on Jerry Brown Medfly jokes or Alexander Haig one-liners. There are no boffo stories today that feature Claus von Bulow or Roxanne Pulitzer, either.
Washington is an all-news-station-place where the ideal one-liner at a dinner is built around a public happening that took place this very night, just after the soup and just before the salad. 3. Ethnic, Shmethnic: Avoid Pedro, Pat and Manny stories.
There are only three demographic groups about whom you can tell a joke: your own racial, religious or nationality group; white Southerners; and white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs).
Ever since the middle of the last century, white Southerners have been overcompensating for their ancestors' rebellion by being more American than the United States itself. And one American quality, which is generally more prized than prominent, is that Americans are good sports who can take kidding. Southern whites go along with the Sen. Claghorn stories or the regional racist stereotype that so many jokes assume. Perhaps this is because, from the very outset, they know that they are the ones who really run the country and assign the parking places. The WASPs have never bothered to organize.
Lately, WASP and Preppy have merged in many minds, producing the personalized caricature in Vice President George Bush (Andover and Yale). At last month's Gridiron dinner, Glenn won laughs with this assessment of Bush, complete with an affected wire-jaw New England accent: "He's a really nifty vice-president who's doing just swell. George can't help it if quiche is his idea of soul food." Nobody noticed any Episcopalians taking either umbrage or their leave.
In the early 1950s, Adlai Stevenson used the following line with no recorded problems: "This is a dark, dark world, and that is why the Irish are always half-lit."
Any candidate today who was not himself proudly Irish and who repeated such a line would be publicly picketed by the local branch of the Hibernian Anti-Defamation League, but only after the local eyewitness mini-cams had been alerted. (Film at 11 -- just what every candidate wants to avoid.)
Sociologists and historians may be able to explain the disappearance over the last generation of our tolerance for dialect humor and ethnic yarns. As sensitivities increased dramatically, politicians grew understandably wary. Individual needles directed at political rivals or colleagues are acceptable. But any group needle should best be directed only at groups with which the speaker has a clear and comfortable identification.
In 1980, then-Vice President Walter Mondale had his own experience with group sensitivity. Mondale told a story about the Republican he allegedly met while campaigning. This member of the GOP was complaining loudly about all the nation's ills being caused by politicians. "You know," this citizen said, pounding his fist on the table, "this would never happen if Ronald Reagan were still alive."
As Mondale explained to Marlene Cimons of the Los Angeles Times, "It's the toughest thing in the world to figure out what works, what doesn't, what's blue -- and what hurts." He remembered, "The Gray Panthers called me up and said they didn't like that line. I never used it again." 4. Use Oldies -- But Goodies.
In the words of Bob Orben, former presidential speechwriter for Jerry Ford and present comedy-writer-for-hire-and-purchase, "Nothing is old unless the person just before you on the program used it."
And there is age-old evidence to support the Orben rule. During one of their historic debates, Stephen A. Douglas called Abraham Lincoln two-faced. Lincoln responded, "Now I leave it to my audience: if I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"
In 1979, Jerry Brown, then governor of California, had first opposed the tax-cutting Proposition 13, but later nearly adopted it as his own. Rep. Olympia Snowe of Maine, then a first-termer, wowed a Washington press dinner with this needle: "There are only two things I don't like about Jerry Brown: his face."
President Reagan showed both humor and admirable grace under pressure when, in explaining to his wife how he got his gunshot wound, he borrowed an old line from former heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey. "Honey, I forgot to duck" was perfectly appropriate.
There is much to be learned from earlier politicians and their ability to deflect unfair and irrational criticism. Take the class of Al Smith, the New York governor who, when nominated for president by the Democrats in 1928, became the first Roman Catholic to be so honored. Throughout the ugly campaign, bigots charged that Smith was in league with the Vatican. On election night when he had lost, Smith was asked for a comment. He said he had just sent a one-word telegram to the pope -- "Unpack."
It's tough, even with supply side and Evans and Novak's love affair with the gold standard, to begin to approach the genuine wit of a William Hazlitt who was, himself, frequently quoted by a genuine wit, Adlai Stevenson. Hazlitt wrote: "Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be."
Now, that's a truly great line in Washington -- or any place.