In times like these, it’s worth recalling politicians like Morris “Mo” Udall, the lanky long-time Congressman from Arizona who gave Jimmy Carter a good run for the 1976 Democratic nomination.
Mr. Udall was beloved because he had a quip for every occasion. Reflecting on corrupt vote-counting practices in Chicago, which sometimes included citizens no longer in existence, Mr. Udall stated his wish to be buried in that city so he could “remain active in politics.”
He once told of seeing a protester’s sign saying “Ronald Reagan has Quaker Oats for brains.” The demonstrator was taking a big risk, noted Mr. Udall, because he was “maligning a brand-name product.”
In 1988, he published a book called Too Funny to be President, in which he recounted all the wisecracks and one-liners of American politicians, making special mention of how the use of self-deprecating wit so often helped their cause.
On reading it, I couldn’t help thinking about how short of material Mr. Udall would be if he tried writing such a volume today. As politics has increasingly become an insult-hurling enterprise, humour has become a lost art.
Too bad, because as Mr. Udall points out, humour can work wonders for the image of politicians, humanizing them, connecting them, defusing criticism. If progressives tried poking fun at themselves once in a while, they might deflate accusations of being such woke-soaked elitists. A little self-mockery would surely help Justin Trudeau.
In the U.S., particularly among Republicans, anti-intellectualism knows no bounds. Repartee has been reduced to blasphemy. Mr. Udall would find wit aplenty – halfwits, dimwits and nitwits.
Republicans did however find a way of taking the edge off with their “Let’s go Brandon” chant.
The phrase is a stand-in for an insult to Joe Biden prefixed by a very popular f-word. As a sign of the times, the vulgar epithet was being chanted at sporting events throughout the country. Subsequently, at a NASCAR race, a reporter told winner Brandon Brown he could hear his name being chanted when in fact it was clear the crowd was hollering the Biden smear. Though Donald Trump said he liked the first phrase better, the “Let’s go Brandon” meme took off from there.
Frustrating for Mr. Trump’s critics has been their inability to use satire and wit to humiliate him. “Nothing deflates a pompous ass quicker than a well-placed barb,” wrote Mr. Udall. But you can’t shame the shameless. Effective humour requires taking things over the top. If the starting point is already a gong show, it’s a challenge.
Another deterrent to humour in these times is political correctness run amok. “We have become stupidly politically correct, which is the death of comedy,” Mel Brooks said. “Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks.”
Nowadays it’s all about atonement. We’re in what comic Dennis Miller calls the “mea culpa generation.”
In Mo Udall’s time, among the many who could make light of one’s plight were John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and commentators such as Art Buchwald. On the Canadian side, there was Bob Stanfield, who had some similarities to Mr. Udall, cabinet minister John Crosbie and writers such as Allan Fotheringham.
When he wasn’t being contemptuous, Pierre Trudeau could use wit to good effect. Once when a protester demanded to know whatever happened to the Just Society he promised, Mr. Trudeau replied, “Ask Jesus Christ. He promised it first.”
Few could top Mr. Reagan in deflecting criticism with well-timed barbs. In a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, the 72-year-old president defused the age issue with just one volley. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes,” he said to heaps of laughter, “my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Rotund New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a target of many dough-boy jibes, found a sweet way of using self-mockery to undercut them. On the Late Show with David Letterman, he pulled out a glazed doughnut from his suit pocket.
At least the late night comedians have been around to provide comic relief. Mr. Letterman was going on one time about George W. Bush’s promises to bring jobs and free elections to Iraq. Added Mr. Letterman, “The president said if it works there, he’ll try it here.”
It’s the type of self-mockery Mr. Bush could have used to great effect on himself.
All leaders should take a page from Mr. Udall’s book. He recalled how he learned not to take himself too seriously when he put out a questionnaire to constituents asking, “Do you support spending $20-billion to put a man on the moon?”
“Yes,” came a reply. “If you go!”
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