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The Humor Deficit

McCain and Obama seem like funny guys, so why are their campaigns anything but?

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Illustration by Ward Sutton  

One of the reasons a lot of us looked forward to this particular presidential matchup, John McCain versus Barack Obama, was the prospect of a contest between two appealingly human candidates. And each man’s menschiness (especially McCain’s) derives in part from a manifest instinct for irony. There have been funny presidential nominees before—Jack Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, even George W. Bush in his way—but never in my lifetime (unless you count Reagan versus Walter Mondale) two at once. And it does seem to make some kind of Zeitgeist sense: two anti-Establishment candidates running in this era of Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, Maureen Dowd, ubiquitous blogospheric irreverence, and Al Franken as a U.S. Senate candidate. Earlier this year, one could imagine not just an unusually substantive and elevated presidential to-and-fro in the fall, but one in which moments of actual wit might regularly glisten.

Ah, well, it was pretty to think so. This summer, humor is proving to be the election’s consistently problematic X-factor. Attempts at humor by the candidates and their campaigns have been bungled, or deliberately and/or stupidly misconstrued. And negative campaign gambits that have every appearance of being jokes are being posited seriously as “issues.” While electoral politics have become fodder more than ever for humor and satire, it turns out the sensibility flow is not really two-way; trying to get our politics to accommodate humor, it turns out, is like trying to play a CD on a turntable.

Take the most recent race-card brouhaha. Heretofore, “playing the race card” had meant a bitter, overhyped allegation of racism. Yet Obama’s formulations were jocular, tossed out with a wink to sympathetic white audiences, attempts to mention but laugh off a hugely salient fact about this election—that he’s an African-American running against a party that has for 40 years profited politically from white anxieties about African-Americans. “We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run,” he said in Florida in June. “They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. ‘He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?’ ” And then the week before last in Missouri: “You know, ‘He’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name.’ You know, ‘He doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills. He’s risky.’ ”

Now, while McCain or people associated with his campaign have indeed impugned and mocked Obama’s experience, name, patriotism, and trustworthiness, they’ve never actually made the argument that he shouldn’t be president because he’s black. However, they surely want to maximize the several million anti-Obama votes that will be powered at least in part by racism. (Just as Hillary Clinton wished to do when she spoke of her greater support among “hardworking Americans, white Americans.”)

In other words, Obama was making a serious point about the ugly political realities, but trying to do so in a way that seemed unthreatened and unthreatening, with cool sock-puppety humor. To which McCain’s campaign manager and then the candidate himself responded with all the pseudo-solemn self-righteous faux rage they could muster—just the sort of overreaction that people like Al Sharpton enact at their Mau-Mauiest. “Barack Obama,” Rick Davis said, “has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, negative, shameful, and wrong.”

I’m assuming that this was standard political disingenuousness rather than actual outrage. But if the McCain campaign’s TV commercial featuring Britney Spears and Paris Hilton is any indication, they really do seem surprisingly clueless about contemporary sensibilities, including the uses of humor. One can imagine the ad’s basic, crazy idea—a suggestion that Obama’s contagious global appeal is a liability, that a middle-aged black Ivy League intellectual is equivalent to a pair of cretinous blonde Hollywood tarts—as the germ of a great Colbert Report riff. FunnyorDie.com and Paris herself instantly produced a fairly funny response video (“See you at the debates, bitches,” she says), but the McCain ad is entirely serious. I don’t buy the notion that it has an anti-miscegenation subtext; it’s just dopey and ineffective. When even Republicans professed themselves mortified, McCain’s defenders pretended that the ad had been intended as comedy. “It’s a bit of humor,” Joe Lieberman said on Meet the Press. JK, everybody, JK!!! Sure.

Now McCain has a new Web ad, portraying Obama as a messiah, which really does mean to be funny. But the McCain propagandists don’t quite get how humor works: In a clip of Obama they include in the video, he is plainly joking about his own messianic image. Mike Murphy, the funny, clued-in Republican strategist whom McCain’s handlers have refused to allow into the campaign, could not hide his disdain on Meet the Press: “They’ve got to get a theme and message that’s not about sarcasm.”


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