The Humor Deficit

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. 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.”

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 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.


The Humor Deficit