Every presidential campaign expends enormous amounts of effort and energy to convince skeptical media and, more important, interested voters that its candidate possesses a genuine sense of humor. To be without a sense of humor is probably un-American, as well as evidence of terminal pomposity and self-importance — not traits voters prize in their public officials.
There is some logic here. In a presidential candidate, a real sense of humor can reassure Americans, whose vote for president is the most personal one they cast. A vote for Congress or state senator is far more likely to be based on the candidate’s party affiliation or position on issues such as same-sex marriage or Social Security. In a president, we voters look for — and are confident we can recognize — those special qualities of character and personality we so value in our national leader.
Self-deprecatory humor, where a candidate publicly kids his own perceived weaknesses and mistakes, can communicate to voters that candidate’s emotional security. At this, nobody was better than President Ronald Reagan, whose abbreviated workdays enabled critics to question the aging chief executive’s energy level. To a dinner hosted by the media, a smiling Gipper cracked, “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”
At Washington’s annual Gridiron dinner, where there are three guest speakers — a Democrat, a Republican and the president or his designated substitute — Texas Gov. Rick Perry brilliantly kidded himself about his factual gaffes and failed campaign. Noting President Barack Obama’s absence, he added: “I read that he is in Korea, at the DMZ. Would somebody tell me, why do you have to go all the way to Korea to get a driver’s license? Must be something to do with that birth certificate thing.”
Of the 2012 candidates to whom he lost: “The weakest Republican field in history — and they kicked my butt!” Then, wistfully: “I don’t know why I didn’t do better. I’m governor of a big state. A former military pilot. I graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in animal husbandry. Maybe that was the problem. Animal husbandry sounds like what Rick Santorum thinks gay marriage will lead to.”
Of course, even well-crafted, self-deprecating humor of the caliber Rick Perry delivered so well could not compensate for his factual missteps and his own weak debate performances. Still, in most instances, before people vote for you, they first have to like you.
And the candidate who can comfortably laugh at his own shortcomings makes it difficult for the media — or that candidate’s opponents — to try to recirculate those identical defects. Such critics can come across as common scolds.
After Reagan’s tax cuts had failed to generate the cascading new federal revenues that he had promised and led instead to then-record peacetime budget deficits, he kidded: “I’m not going to worry about the deficit. It’s big enough to take care of itself.”
Obama, who appears to be a total stranger to self-doubt, insisted that he really was accessible to the media: “I even sat for an interview with Bill O’Reilly. ... That was a change of pace. I don’t often get a chance to be in a room with an ego that’s bigger than mine.”
Gov. Mitch Daniels showed a daring streak when he told the 2011 Gridiron dinner, “I bring greetings from my beloved Indiana — a land of surprises, where, as we say, South Bend is in the north, North Vernon is in the south, and French Lick is not what you hoped it was.”
Political candidates with the inability to laugh at themselves just make me nervous. A sense of humor is no guarantee of good judgment. But don’t trust with power anyone who lacks a sense of humor.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.