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Laughing all the way to the White House

I while ago, I picked up a copy of Bob Dole's book, "Great Presidential Wit (...I wish I was in this book)", at my beloved Building 19. It's a great little book, with Dole finding humorous stories, quotes, and anecdotes about the 42 men who've held the highest office in our land. And while it certainly wasn't intended to provoke any serious thought or debate, I'm coming to two conclusions after reading it.

1) When given a chance, Americans will choose to vote for the funnier candidate.

I can't quite say this has been conclusive throughout US history, but it certainly has held true for all the presidential elections I can remember.

2004 - Bush's self-deprecating wit, down-home Texas mannerisms and frequent stumble-mouthedness vs. John Kerry's sparkling "don't I have great hair?"

2000 - Bush, again, vs. Gore's futile attempts to recover from decades as Mr. Stiff As A Board, Mr. Frumpy, Mr. Serious Wonk.

1996 - Amiable, gregarious Bill Clinton vs. Grumpy Old Bob Dole.

1992 - Amiable, gregarious Bill Clinton vs. befuddled, flailing George H. W. Bush

1988 - George H. W. Bush was no laugh riot, but the Democrats put up Michael Dukakis. MICHAEL DUKAKIS, people.

1984 - Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale. Carter's veep? "There you go again!" To be fair, though, I think it would have taken Steven Wright or Robin Williams to beat Reagan in 1984.

1980 - Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter, the somber, scolding, weak-spined milksop who'd aged 20 years in one term and sent the country straight down the crapper.

1976 - Smiling, happy Jimmy Carter (who told Playboy that he "lusted in his heart") vs. Gerald Ford and the legacy of Watergate.

2) Presidents with good senses of humor tend to do far better in office than those lacking.

Those presidents who are often listed as the greatest are also the ones we remember for their wit. We don't remember them FOR their wit, but it seems such an essential part of their character. Lincoln, Reagan, the Roosevelts, and Kennedy tend to gravitate to the top of both lists, while Millard Fillmore, the Harrisons, Grant, and my fellow New Hampshirite Franklin Pierce get low marks on both scores.

I don't think this is a coincidence. I think that a good sense of humor is vital to succes in politics. It gives one a sense of perspective. It lets one connect with the public. And it displays a sense of commonality with the public, if one can get them to laugh WITH the candidate, and not AT them.

And I wish to hell we'd seen THIS Bob Dole back in 1996, and not Angry, Grumpy Bob Dole. The guy who wrote this book, the guy who did the Pepsi commercials, the guy who said that after losing the race for Vice-President in 1976 that he'd slept like a baby on election night -- "I woke up every two hours and cried" -- he might have pulled off a miracle and beaten Bill Clinton. He might have spared the nation the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the quagmire in the Balkans, the worse-than-useless "deals" with North Korea on nuclear weapons, and a host of other delightful legacies from Clinton's 2nd term. That Bob Dole might have won.


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Comments (18)

I think it has to do with s... (Below threshold)
Robin Goodfellow:

I think it has to do with social confidence. Which is very much tied to being a good leader.

Everybody seems to forget that the nation and the government is made out of people (or "out of people!" if you prefer the Heston way of saying it). It's not just some big machine you pull levers on (nor is the world, of course). Being a good president entails maintaining good relationships with others, which requires people skills, which, of course, often go hand in hand with good wit and general amiability. Though there are exceptions.

Bob Dole in 96 was the obli... (Below threshold)
Jay:

Bob Dole in 96 was the obligatory "gotta put up someone and it's his turn as senior party dude" candidate, with little hope or even desire to win.

The Dems in 2004 made the mistake of putting up their own Bob Dole candidate as if it was 1996, yet thinking it was 1992 and winnable a la Clinton. Which it was, only less so. In 1992 you had Clinton's charisma against GHWB's heart not really being in getting elected again, just going through the motions.

I remember Katie Couric int... (Below threshold)
goddessoftheclassroom:

I remember Katie Couric interviewing Bob Dole when he was running. Her bias was obvious, and she was nasty. I haven't watched her since.

Bob Dole was on Letterman s... (Below threshold)

Bob Dole was on Letterman shortly after losing the race - If the Bob Dole that showed up on Letterman had run, he would have been President

I don't think it's just hum... (Below threshold)

I don't think it's just humor. I think that whichever candidate expresses the most positive view of the country and its future is likely to win. The implications of this include that for a reform candidate to win he or she needs to focus on the potential rather than the problem.

Consider this when comparing likely Democratic presidential candidates in 2008 with likely Republican candidates.

I agree that Dole did not d... (Below threshold)

I agree that Dole did not deserve to win in '96. That said, I've always felt he got a bum rap by the media during that campaign, who always portrayed him as "grouchy" when actually he's quite a laff riot.

On the other hand, whiney complaints such as "stop lying about my record" certainly don't help.

A good sense of humor is vi... (Below threshold)

A good sense of humor is vital to success in life. I can't think of any profession where a good sense of humor has worked against someone.

Of course, telling tasteless or bad jokes can be worse than NOT having a sense of humor.

EdMcGon. Indeed,<a href="h... (Below threshold)
Steve Crickmore:

EdMcGon. Indeed, humor in bad taste is a trademark of Bush's frat house type mind-set so endearing to his applauding supporters .. Let's not forget too, he is he has alot to be modest or self-deprecating about.

Bob Dole was on Le... (Below threshold)
Bob Dole was on Letterman shortly after losing the race - If the Bob Dole that showed up on Letterman had run, he would have been President.

The crazy thing is, Dole was known on Capitol Hill as a wit before he ran for president. If he hadn't been so old when he ran he might have been able to relax a little on the stump.

Uh, yeah, Steve, you can al... (Below threshold)
Sheik Yur Bouty:

Uh, yeah, Steve, you can always find a boogeyman, when that's all you want to see.....

Ahhh crickmore Soldi... (Below threshold)
virgo:

Ahhh crickmore
Soldiers are not dying because of Bushs mistakes, rather they are dying because of terrorists you silly child.

Virgo and Sheik. I don't s... (Below threshold)
Steve Crickmore:

Virgo and Sheik. I don't subscribe to the heavy anti-war commentary of Bush's failed set-piece humor.. It was the only link I could find to this example of his unfortunate but characteristic inapproriate humor (to me). As for Kerry during the debates (not his speeches) I thought he showed surprising warm humor..among the examples.
KERRY: "Well, I guess the president and you and I are three examples of lucky people who married up.
(LAUGHTER)
And some would say maybe me more so than others"
and further "They (his daughter and wife) also kick me around. They keep me honest. They don't let me get away with anything. I can sometimes take myself too seriously ." and the ad lib exchange about Bush's daughters: Bush wants"to put them on a "leash" ( characteristically inapproriate) and Kerry advises "that it doesn't work." I suppose so much humor is in the eye of the beholder.

Jay Tea, this is an insight... (Below threshold)

Jay Tea, this is an insightful post. I've long thought that the smartest people in show business are the comedians.

"I think it has to do with ... (Below threshold)
jp2:

"I think it has to do with social confidence."

I think Gore and Kerry had social confidence, but were just plain stiff. I recommend checking out the 10 minute Gore video filmed by Spike Jonze - you see a really funny, passionate guy, very much different then he presented himself. Talks and jokes about himself and Tipper, his kids... A nice glimpse.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-29385328971143264&q=al+gore

Bush to me looked nervous in the debates - however, he sure was quick - especially with his "Want some wood?" joke. It was like he channeled Bob Hope!

And it's a lot easier to joke when you've lost, like Bob Dole did. Gore's speech at the DNC had the same self-deprecating humor. Being funny is certainly the best way to peoples hearts and votes though.

"1988 - George H. W. Bush w... (Below threshold)

"1988 - George H. W. Bush was no laugh riot, but the Democrats put up Michael Dukakis. MICHAEL DUKAKIS, people."

No, see this one breaks the trend. Dukakis was much funnier than Bush. Remember that tank helmet? Still makes me giggle. The problem was that you didn't laugh with Michael Dukakis. You laughed at him.

Bob Dole cracked me up when... (Below threshold)
Brad:

Bob Dole cracked me up when, I believe in '98 and somehow related to the Lewinsky mess, he cracked wise about sexual harrassment, "I'm so old, I remember when 'harrass' was two words." I agree, the funny Bob Dole who said things like that and showed up on Letterman and SNL where he did bits with Norm McDonald, that Bob Dole might have pulled it off in '96.

Y'know, steve would appear ... (Below threshold)
JorgXMckie:

Y'know, steve would appear to be proof. It looks like he just doesn't understand humor, let alone what a sense of humor would look like.

I think Gore and K... (Below threshold)
I think Gore and Kerry had social confidence, but were just plain stiff. I recommend checking out the 10 minute Gore video filmed by Spike Jonze - you see a really funny, passionate guy, very much different then he presented himself. Talks and jokes about himself and Tipper, his kids... A nice glimpse.

The "social confidence" question then arises: Why didn't he present this side of himself to voters?

For that matter, why didn't Bob Dole...?




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