Grand Old Wit

Since when are Republicans better at humor than Democrats?

Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. Click image to expand.
Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards

Even in an age of overly orchestrated and audience-tested messages from candidates, it’s remarkable how much a spontaneous remark can do to change the tenor of the campaign. Last week, Sarah Palin’s genuinely amusing and apparently unscripted one-liner about pit bulls and hockey moms brought down the house in St. Paul, Minn. Furthermore, it gave the delegates the green light to laugh harder at her not-very-funny put-down of community organizers. This was not old-fashioned American homespun; it was deep sarcasm. It stung, and that’s why the crowd loved it. 

Her cutting remarks were a reminder that politics is about much more than education and the economy—it’s also about making your opponent look bad and, if possible, getting people to laugh at him (or her, as we will now have to say). Let’s face it: Sarcasm works, whether deployed as a fine stiletto (arched eyebrow, double-entendre; say, Dick Cavett, 1972) or a blunt instrument (the full-on smash-mouth assault, Palin, 2008).

When did the Republicans become the party of wit? Liberals don’t like to admit it, but George W. Bush deserves some credit—the man can be funny, and making sardonic fun of “elites” has been a core part of his routine since he entered politics. As a candidate in 2000, he went on Letterman and did well, making fun of his talent for mangled syntax: “A lot of folks don’t think I can string a sentence together, so when I was able to do so, it, uh—Expectations were so low, all I had to do was say, ‘Hi, I’m George W. Bush.’ ” Ronald Reagan is remembered as a sincere, emotive kind of speaker, but he, too, had a cornball genius. He would hear a good joke, write it out on one of his cards, and deliver it again and again and again until it was perfect. For example: “Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I’ve come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” Or: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ” Invariably, Reagan’s jokes were about overspending Democrats, or clueless politicians, or people who tried to cut themselves off from the mainstream—exactly the kinds of people Palin was trying to throw to the pit bulls.

Rather than complaining about Palin’s cruel barbs and W’s smirking put-downs of “the angry left,” liberals should reclaim laughter. Wednesday night was encouraging for Democrats—Barack Obama uncorked a few one-liners on Letterman, including a good one about his imminent centerfold in Popular Mechanics. But humor was notably lacking in the 2000 and 2004 contests. Nor was it a regular feature of the Clinton campaigns, despite the fact that Bill Clinton was from the right kind of state to get away with heehaw jokes about rich Republicans.

A quick walk though the history of political humor suggests that in the grand scheme of things, the Democrats have had an easier time of it than Republicans—much as you would expect from a party that claims to represent the disenfranchised, the people who have been laughing at their social betters for thousands of years. The last politician to zing a convention as effectively as Palin did was Ann Richards, the formidable, beehived governor of Texas—a Democrat. Her 1988 oration was a work of genius, not only for its classic line that George H.W. Bush was born with “a silver foot in his mouth”—a much more complex and interesting joke than anything Palin said—but also for its New Deal earthiness and brassy feminism. Richards was on fire that night. Another fondly remembered line from the female perspective brought the house down: “If you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” She poked fun at herself, a tactic W would later master; she spoke with perfect pitch to small-town America; and she sliced the opposition so playfully that many Democrats wished she had been the nominee.

Throughout the 1960s, the laughs were clearly on the side of the Democrats. In 1960, John F. Kennedy quickly established a reputation for his acerbic wit and lively exchanges with reporters, which set an enormous contrast with the starchy Richard Nixon. Kennedy could make fun of government elites (“Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm”), but more often he made fun of everything, himself included (“When we got into office the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were”). Eight years later, during his comeback, Nixon tried, somewhat lamely, to establish himself as a comedic force by asking, deadpan, “Sock it to me?” on Laugh-In. At least give him credit for trying.

It wasn’t terribly difficult to be funnier than the Republican Party of the 1950s and 1960s. (Dwight Eisenhower actually titled a memoir At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends.) But the Democrats owned humor well before that. Harry Truman delivered a rip-roaring stump speech at the 1948 Philadelphia Democratic Convention. He dismissed Republican claims as “poppycock” and announced that he was hauling the do-nothing 80th Congress back into session on a day all Missouri farmers knew as “Turnip day”—the day you were supposed to sow your turnips, wet or dry. The crowd ate it up, even if no one outside of Missouri knew what “Turnip Day” meant. It sounded like he meant business—and as the GOP found out, he did. 

It was impossible for Truman’s mentor, the patrician Franklin D. Roosevelt, to needle his enemies by sounding underprivileged, but he, too, could turn a phrase. Throughout the New Deal, when class tensions were high, Roosevelt’s rollicking sense of humor allowed him to take liberties that other presidents couldn’t have allowed themselves. In the final week of the 1940 campaign, he gave an incendiary speech at the old Madison Square Garden. Roosevelt covered the serious topics—the war in Europe dominated the list—but in the process took delight in ridiculing the GOP for its “weasel words” (then a new phrase) and isolationism. The culmination of the speech came with his rhyming attack against three GOP antagonists who had flip-flopped on the war and other issues, Reps. Joseph Martin (the minority leader), Bruce Barton, and Hamilton Fish. To the rapture of the crowd, which repeated it in unison, FDR singled out all the times when “Martin, Barton, and Fish” had voted the wrong way.

Maybe Democrats could even learn something from the Republicans of old. In its earliest days, when it was formed to smash the do-nothing politics of the 1850s, the Republican Party was able to pull off the Washington-outsider bit legitimately. The funniest president in our history was almost certainly Abraham Lincoln, who told jokes both on- and off-color during his long and lonely rise from obscurity and made devastating use of wit as he confronted the hypocrisy of the “slave power” and the smug forces of the status quo (“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally”). Lincoln knew from personal experience that anger was effective only up to a point, and that ridicule could be far more effective in winning over an anxious audience. Whatever he needed to make a speech work—Aesop-like farm animals, farmers’ daughters, you name it—he could find it in his limitless repertoire of frontier stories.

It seems almost un-American not to make use of this tradition. For no matter how far back we go in our history, the humor is always there, the carping laughter at the margins of what appears to be the deadly serious business of electing presidents. It was there when the Whig Party devastated the Democratic Martin Van Buren (from a poor background but given to fancy airs) for his perfume, corsets, and effete appearance. (Davy Crockett said it was helpful that Van Buren wore sideburns, because otherwise it might not have been clear whether he was a man or a woman.) It was there at the Constitutional Convention itself, when Ben Franklin proposed that all sessions begin with a prayer, and Alexander Hamilton snorted that they had no need of “foreign aid.” It was there when Franklin started his own career, half a century earlier, by making fun of the slowest-moving targets an American humorist ever had—the Puritans.

Will the Democrats rediscover the raucous laughter that has been noticeably missing for its last few campaigns? If history, the laws of physics, and the demands of a restless population are any guide, then, yes, they will begin to turn the attack around against a GOP that—let’s face it—is elitist, entrenched, and doddering. (For God’s sake, its middle name is “Old.”) By unsheathing a surprisingly sharp wit, Palin drew first blood, and no one should fault her for doing what vice presidential candidates are supposed to do. Now that the contest is wide open, let’s see whether there are any pit bulls on the other side.