Too Funny To Be President?

Huckabee’s a joker. That’s a problem.

Mike Huckabee 

Mike Huckabee is occasionally funny, but he is always the funny guy. “If you think that Medicare is expensive now, wait until 10,000 aging hippies a day find out they can get free drugs,” he said in one GOP debate. “I may not have any foreign policy experience,” he told Don Imus, “but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” At a press conference in Iowa last week after the last GOP debate, Huckabee dished out so many one-liners that I wondered which staffer was responsible for the rim shot. His material is sometimes edgy and he even does impersonations, mimicking the voice of an Arkansas garage mechanic to explain how odd it was to ask for a seat belt in the 1960s. “You wanna do what? You wanna put in a strap so you tie yourself down in that car?” He probably has a puppet routine he’s just saving for his appearance on Meet the Press.

The jokes have helped Huckabee pry his way into the GOP primary fight, first at an early debate—when he got Republicans chuckling by saying Congress spent more than John Edwards does at a beauty shop. His amusing ad with Chuck Norris also generated a good deal of buzz. The media love any candidate who is entertaining. Voters mention his humor approvingly when they talk about why they like him.

This is a general trait of the electorate—voters like presidents who know how to poke fun. Some of our most popular recent presidents have been able to keep people smiling. John Kennedy was a first- class wit who delighted in humor for its own sake. Reagan was more of a grandfatherly teller of set-piece jokes with some famous quips. “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he told his wife after he was shot. To the surgeons he said, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Clinton was a great storyteller and knew how to make fun of himself.

Our least popular presidents are the dour ones—Nixon and Carter told forced jokes, and when they smiled it unsettled people. Ford was funny, but it was inadvertent. George W. Bush likes to snicker, but that doesn’t make him funny. The jokes he tells are often at someone else’s expense. James Garfield’s political adviser warned him against humor—”Never make the people laugh. If you would succeed in life you must be solemn, solemn as an ass.” Garfield was assassinated three months into his term. * Gore and Kerry tasked people to write jokes for them because they didn’t want to get caught out as bad comedians.

Huckabee reminds me of Mo Udall, the last great punster and jester on the campaign trail who every candidate wants to quote but not emulate. “I’m Mo Udall and I’m running for president,” the failed Democratic candidate said, walking into a shop. “Yeah,” replied the barber, “we were just laughing about that.” Candidates don’t repeat Udall’s better lines, like his observation that the difference between a cactus and a caucus is that with a cactus, the pricks are on the outside.

There is a limit, though, which the Udall examples thunderously show, to how many jokes a candidate can tell before voters think he’s not serious. As Huckabee takes a commanding lead in the polls in Iowa and South Carolina, his opponents are trying to turn his humor against him. “No laughing matter,” reads a series of Mitt Romney’s press releases that claim to take “a serious look at Governor Mike Huckabee’s record and policy beyond the one-liners.” At the top of the release is the Holiday Inn Express logo. Last week, Fred Thompson’s Iowa director also tried to rap Huckabee’s knuckles: “The security of Americans and our allies is no laughing matter. What Americans are looking for in their next president is a commander in chief, not a Court Jester.”

The attacks work on several levels. They suggest Huckabee is too light for the job and also that he makes jokes because he’s hiding something. Behind every quip is a troubling reality on taxes, immigration, or his criminal justice record in Arkansas, the subject of Romney’s brand-new ad. The strategy seeks to transform Huckabee’s best asset into a liability.

Will this work? Yes, if for no other reason than they mess with Huckabee’s head. He can’t tell more jokes without worrying that he’s playing into his opponents’ hands. As he faces tougher questions, he can’t fall back on shtick. “A group of AIDS patients walked into a quarantine …” Bad idea.

Hucakabee also can’t joke his way past inexperience, and he has a problem with his party in this regard on the subject of national security and foreign affairs. His lack of any background is dangerous in a commander in chief, say critics, and worse, if he becomes the nominee, Republicans will give away what has been their national security trump card since the Cold War and especially after the attacks of Sept. 11.

Given this sobering worry, Huckabee may have given his opponents an opening this Sunday with his article in Foreign Affairs, in which he criticized George Bush for having an “arrogant bunker mentality.” He also described international relations in terms of the school playground (America is the stingy straight-A student and therefore despised). Not a joke, exactly, but a metaphor that’s on the juvenile side.

Romney immediately attacked the piece as unserious, saying Huckabee had “ laughed off” the assignment to explain his foreign policy views. On his campaign bus rolling through New Hampshire John McCain accused Huckabee of  “gratuitously bashing [Bush] ex post facto.” Conservatives panned the article for being, as one former top Bush official put it, “sophomoric and repeating Democratic Party talking points.” In the Republican ranks, there is some war fatigue, but Bush still has a 71 percent approval rating, so attacks on him are risky. But the larger problem for Huckabee may be that the narrative of his candidacy is that in a field of apostates, he is the candidate conservatives can feel is one of us. The Foreign Affairs piece doesn’t fit that mold. It’s a problem he’s got to address—and with something more than jokes.

Correction, Dec. 18, 2007: The article originally and incorrectly said that James Garfield was assassinated three weeks into his term. He was assassinated three months into his term. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)