But we’ve seen this summer that humorlessness is not a GOP-specific affliction. The reaction by Obama-ites to the New Yorker’s cover cartoon—Barack and Michelle as armed anti-American jihadis in the White House—ranged from disappointingly touchy to pathetically hysterical. Instead of issuing a press release grimly denouncing the drawing as “tasteless and offensive,” the campaign should have had the candidate laugh it off: After all, it’s simply a more extreme version of the Republican caricature that Obama himself sketched in his “race card” speeches. In a Daily Kos poll of its readers, 58 percent said that the drawing was “tasteless and damaging” or “doesn’t help anyone”—in other words, politically incorrect in nearly the original Maoist sense. At first, the idea of actual political damage—that voters would take the cartoon as mainstream-media confirmation of their nutty suspicions—seemed like a stretch to me. But if ostensibly sophisticated left-wing people on Kos didn’t get the joke, I guess it’s plausible that some in the lumpen proletariat won’t either.
As a matter of fact, repeatedly in the course of this campaign people have taken what ought to be joke notions and tried transmuting them into real issues. Half the anti-Obama e-mails I received from readers last spring earnestly referred to him as a “Marxist.” On the ridiculousness scale, this seemed somewhere between Colbert’s “secret Muslim” mock-slur and the idea that the Bushes are shape-shifting reptoids—but then I discovered that Obama-as-commie had become a talking point on right-wing blogs and talk radio. And a few weeks ago, the GOP nominee himself all but signed on to the idea. “His voting record,” McCain declared, “is more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.” So is Obama a socialist? “I don’t know. All I know is his voting record.”
Similarly, I could’ve imagined one of Jon Stewart’s “correspondents” doing a funny piece about Obama’s being too skinny to win the votes of Whopper-gobbling Americans … but then two weeks ago McCain’s campaign manager issued a memo deriding Obama for having visited a gym three times in one day. And two days later, The Wall Street Journal ran a serious piece of reporting: “Too Fit to Be President?”
“Lighten up and get a life,” John McCain told Diane Sawyer last year, responding to criticism of his crack to Jon Stewart that he’d brought along “a nice little IED to put under your desk.” McCain can be funny. Barack Obama can be witty. Maybe in their debates this fall they’ll show their stuff. But right now everyone except the professional humorists seems stuck in nineties p.c. mode. The next skirmish in the humorlessness wars? I’ll be surprised if MoveOn.org or one of the Democratic 527 groups doesn’t air an ad hoisting McCain on his own comedy petard. A tsk-tsking anthology of choice moments from last year (in addition to the “nice little IED” joke, his “bomb bomb Iran” Beach Boys parody) could be quite effective. Alas.
The recent race-based kerfuffles, apart from some sadly humor-challenged responses by both candidates, are symptomatic of how difficult it is to have a frank national conversation about race. According to the McCain campaign’s new expanded definition of “playing the race card,” it now covers pretty much any mention of racial bias by a black politician. For instance, when Martin Luther King Jr., in his “I Have A Dream” speech 45 years ago this month, said that “we can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of … unspeakable horrors,” wasn’t he, by McCain’s lights, playing the race card divisively and negatively?
It’s a see–hear–speak-no-evil response, an attempt to shut down debate preemptively. It reminds me of the way many Republicans also refuse to talk about inequality—by dismissing any complaint about the increasingly lopsided distribution of wealth in America as an incitement to “class warfare.” Or the way that racism is automatically imputed to opponents of affirmative action, or anti-Semitism to any sympathy for the Palestinians in the territories. We don’t need yet another political third rail in our politics. We are about to have our first African-American nominee for president, and we will be denying ourselves a large part of the virtue of that accomplishment if we disallow meaningful public discussion of all its ramifications.
For instance, in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month, about a fifth of white voters who plan to vote against Obama admitted that his race is among the main reasons why. Should that sorry fact be unmentionable, a truth too upsetting to allow into the candidates’ discourse? Conversely, only a third of the black voters in the same poll would admit that Obama’s race is an important reason they’ll vote for him. Am I wrong to infer that most of those black voters are fibbing about their own color blindness?
This election is rife with historic opportunity, not least the fact that both candidates have made their reputations partly on the basis of unusual candor and good humor. But with twelve weeks to go, it’s looking as if we can’t handle the truth and can’t take a joke.