September 26 2008
Ha Ha and Other No-nos: What You Will Not See in the Debates
Donna Wiesner Keene
I hope you are glad to see - as I am - that funnyman former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is doing standup comedy. The audience is in for a real treat.
A few months ago, I laughed my way through a one-on-one lunch with the Presidential wannabe whose off-the-cuff wit left me hard-pressed to finish my food. I told him I had heard he was funny, and we discussed self-deprecating humor and it's almost spiritual value to humans.
Not from Huckabee's wing of the Republican Party, I had all but forgotten our lunch until the next time I heard the Governor's voice - on the Sunday morning news shows two days later, apologizing for what he had intended as a light hearted comment about Obama falling off a chair. I understand why he apologized, but it saddened me. I am tired of living in a society that has lost its sense of humor. I wonder if 300 million of us are so hungry for gossip that this repeatedly aired segment was worthy of our attention.
What is quite sad is that we cannot seem to see the humor in politics, business, and day-to-day life. Obama ran into a similar problem. My grandmother called me sweetie as a term of endearment. It isn't in the modern common lexicon, but could hardly be called an insult then or now. Tipper, please update your warning labels - we have two new offensive words and you have GOT to keep our children from hearing them - "funny" and "sweetie"!
I was also eating (a habit of mine) during an Ann Coulter speech last year when she supposedly insulted Senator John Edwards not by saying he was gay but by using "gay" in the same sentence as his name. Those of us in the room didn't find this the funniest line, but hardly offensive. As we know, the news shows went ballistic and edited the text down to the most offensive cut possible. It wasn't offensive still, but it was humor, and that was the enemy.
We policy wonks in the Reagan Department of Labor used to discuss the trend toward specialization. Medicine was shifting away from the General Practitioner whose knew where you came from and who had probably delivered you as a child about a year after attending your parent's wedding. The town GP knew your ancestors and their illnesses, thus, what to look for in you and your children. We asked in the 1980s, "Will health care costs rise now that specialization requires second and third opinions?"
I am saddened by the specialization of humor - Comedy Central allows us to watch humor any time of the day or night, but there is less to go around. One of the things people liked most about Ronald Reagan was his tendency to find humor in everyday life and his ability to parry attacks with wit and a quick joke. Remember, for example, his defusing of the age issue in the 1984 debates ("I will not make an issue of my opponent's youth and inexperience").
Perhaps the last real wit to run for President was Bob Dole, who managed to make more political points humorously than anyone before or since, but the emerging viciousness forced him to pay for trying to lighten things up. Remember his demanding "where's the outrage?" If he were running today, he might be more likely to demand "where's the fun?"
I remember laughing in the back halls of hotels with campaign staff and press alike while leading Carter, Reagan and Anderson to speeches in 1980. Constant press attention has changed even those halls to somber places, and our candidates seem trapped by this quasi-seriousness.
Have you read the most recent list of things 18 year olds don't know? The next decade will bring college students who have never known jokes in an airport, because the wrong word can get you thrown in jail, fined, or even result in the loss of flying privileges. Who risks being jovial in public? Your remarks do not even have to be noted at the time, because like the hundreds of traffic cameras in the District of Columbia, fines can be levied after the fact in secret code by low-level government bureaucrats.
One weekend a group of us were in Louisville. I go out of my way to avoid the Clintons, but Senator Rodham Clinton arrived at our hotel for the primary, bumping my friends to different floors in the middle of their confirmed stay. We hopped into cold showers at 4 am Tuesday for our 6:30 flight - the hotel hot water was off.
We were upset until I noted that the good Senator had arrived late the previous night, was scheduled for a full day of campaigning and would, like us, begin the day with a cold shower ... something a lot of people think she badly needs.
It was insensitive of me and in the current climate I should apologize, but it sure made all of us feel better. Now that Clinton is out of the race, perhaps the last two men standing will lighten up in Friday's debates - but don't count on it.