Candidates try to keep ‘em laughing

-By Michael M. Bates

Next year’s presidential race may be characterized as the campaign of the cackle. You know what I’m talking about: that staged, shrill, joyless hoot emitted by Mrs. Clinton.

Last month, she hit the Sunday morning talk show circuit. Appearing on five major programs gave her a chance to display her newly acquired funny bone.

She erupted in laughter numerous times. Whether the question concerned what another candidate said, or why she and her husband are hyper partisan, or about critics deeming her health care plan socialized medicine, Hillary guffawed like a banshee. Describing the mirth as contrived is charitable.

Maybe she wants voters to see a softer side and forget what a battle ax she’s truly been. Last month she told The Politico’s Roger Simon: “One of the most common things people say to me is, ‘You know, you are not at all like I thought you would be!’ Clinton said and then laughed uproariously.”

Hilarious Hillary isn’t the only presidential candidate trying to use humor. So far, the results are mixed.

Rudy Giuliani brandishes a modified Bon Newhart routine. Taking a phone call from his wife in the middle of a National Rifle Association speech didn’t harvest that many giggles. He’s used this particular shtick before. It’s not amusing, just rude, and he’s needs to polish his act.

John McCain learned a lesson earlier this year about how joking can backfire. In response to a question about military action against Iran, he queried the audience, “You know that old Beach Boys’ song, Bomb Iran?” Then he crooned to that tune “Bomb bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” His home state Arizona Daily Star editorialized “McCain’s Iran humor a dud,” a sentiment shared by others.

A one-liner Senator McCain regularly employs is telling his audience that Congress spends money like a drunken sailor. Then he claims he received an e-mail from a veteran complaining that, as a former drunken sailor, he resents being compared to Congress.

The first time I heard that joke, or more precisely a variation of it, was in the mid-1970s from Congressman Guy Vander Jagt (R-MI). Which shows that if a joke works, pols don’t mind “borrowing” from one another.

That’s what Al Gore did in his 1988 presidential campaign. He spoke of approaching some New Hampshire voters and announcing, “I’m Senator Al Gore. I’m campaigning for president.” One of the residents replied, “Yeah we know, we were just laughing about that this morning.”

The gag had been told by Congressman Morris Udall (D-AZ) ever since he tried for his party’s 1976 nomination. Mr. Udall wrote Gore that “I know that we politicians are often accused of thievery, but this goes beyond the bounds” and offered Al free use of the rest of his repertoire, but not that particular witticism.

One of the more promising current candidates, at least in terms of humor, is Republican Mike Huckabee. Earlier this year he appeared on MSNBC to promote a book and said people ask him what he does now that he’s no longer the governor of Arkansas. His answer was that he’s a real get up and go guy; he got his wife a good job and goes to pick her up from work every afternoon.

When asked in a debate how long it took God to create the world, Mr. Huckabee answered, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”

He says that what a Q and A session “really stands for is questions and avoidance. I do my best not to say anything that would end my political career.” He speaks of his home state’s ethical problems: “It got to be where the five most feared words for an Arkansas politician were, ‘Will the defendant please rise’.”

OK, OK, this might not be A-game material. Still, it’s a step up from Joe Biden’s observation that you can’t go into a 7-Eleven or Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have an Indian accent. Or Mrs. Clinton quoting Mahatma Gandhi and then explaining he ran a gas station in St Louis.

Barack Obama’s generally been content with having his wife poke fun of him. Last week he tried a little originality in New York, noting “I was going to say I know some of the bars around here, but I think my communications director was trying to cut that off.” Not bad, but perhaps many citizens won’t identify with guys who have their very own communications director. Better leave the heavy lifting to your wife, Barry, like John Edwards does.

It’s unfortunate that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is an issue. He showed real promise a couple of years ago when he declared, “As a Mormon, I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman – and a woman and a woman.”

Democrat Bill Richardson runs a series of humorous ads in which he’s in a “job interview” for the presidency. He should take it easy with that theme. His ads could remind intelligent voters (such as regular readers of this column) of another employment interview, one conducted in 1997. President Clinton’s secretary faxed Monica Lewinsky’s résumé to the United States Ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson. Less than four hours later, Richardson called Monica and scheduled a job interview.

The meeting was held at Bill’s Watergate Hotel suite. He later said, “She was impressive. I remember my chief of staff being impressed with Ms. Lewinsky’s gregariousness, her ability to express herself. She came very well-prepared.”

Evidently, Mr. Richardson enjoys some comedic talent. So when he suggested last week that he’d remove troops from Iraq so hurriedly that military equipment would be left behind for the terrorists, I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.

With this election’s crop of contenders, it could be tougher than usual to tell when a candidate’s trying to be funny. Perhaps they could have their communications directors hold up cards telling us when their boss is delivering a punch line. That way we’d know for sure.

(This Michael Bates column appeared in the October 4, 2007 Reporter Newspapers)
Mike Bates can be contacted at His book, Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths, is available at,, or and can be ordered through most bookstores. It’s also now available at the Orland Park, Mokena and Tinley Park Public Libraries.

His presence on the web can be viewed at

Copyright Publius Forum 2001