Pixel Tracker

Friday, January 18 , 2019, 3:07 pm | Fair 63º


Mark Shields: Genuine Humor Desperately Needed Now

Amid these dark times, Americans need leaders like Reagan and Kennedy who can help us laugh again

We are told hourly that our national mood grows even sourer. Referring to the meltdown of the flight attendant who, after allegedly enduring abuse from belligerent passengers, lost his temper and exited the aircraft by the emergency chute, Democratic pollster Peter Hart quipped: “I think it’s a ‘JetBlue’ election. Everyone is frustrated, and everyone is headed for the emergency exit.”

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

In dark times, the nation needs to be able to have a good laugh. No recent American leader understood that better than former President Ronald Reagan.

In 1987, when confidence in Reagan’s judgment, after the secret sending of arms to Iran, was slipping and the animosity between White House chief of staff Donald Regan and first lady Nancy Reagan was an open secret and there was media speculation about whether the 76-year-old president still had the required energy and stamina to handle the demands of the office, Reagan had this to say to the Gridiron dinner: “1986 was the year of hostile takeover attempts, inside maneuverings, high-stakes intrigue — and that was just at the White House.”

He continued: “Nancy and Don Regan at one point tried to patch things up. They met privately over lunch, just the two of them and their food tasters.” Then, to critics of his less than dawn-to-dusk work schedule, Reagan had this to say: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”

Humor, most especially self-deprecatory humor, where a political leader publicly kids his own perceived weaknesses and errors, sends an emphatically positive message about that leader’s emotional security. The politician who can laugh easily at himself tells his audience and the nation that “I’m really not that pompous or self-important. Even though I’m up here — in this office — on this elevated platform, I don’t consider myself any better than any of you sitting out there.”

And no, it is not just a matter of hiring better joke writers. As someone who earlier worked writing humor for many politicians from both parties, I can testify that only a special handful are both comfortable and convincing poking fun at themselves.

There was no gag writer present when Reagan, as a candidate, was asked by a political reporter to autograph a poster photo of him and his chimp co-star in Bedtime for Bonzo. Reagan wrote, “I’m the one with the watch.”

During the 1980 campaign, after Reagan incorrectly insisted that trees cause more pollution than automobiles, he arrived for a speech on a California college campus, where some wiseguy grad student had hung a sign on a tree: “Cut me down before I kill again.” To his credit, Reagan laughed heartily at the needle.

Once a political leader voluntarily lampoons his own liabilities, it becomes more difficult for adversaries or the media to continue to harp on them without sounding like scolds.

Former President John F. Kennedy was secure enough to answer a young child’s question on how JFK had become a naval hero in World War II this way: “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” And facing charges that he was too young and too influenced by his willful millionaire father, candidate Kennedy told a Washington dinner: “I have just received the following telegram from my generous daddy. It says, ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’”

In the late summer of 2010, Americans desperately need leaders who can help us laugh again. Leaders such as Reagan and JFK and the late Rep. Morris K. “Mo” Udall, D-Ariz., who joked after he lost 14 presidential primaries in 1976 to Jimmy Carter, just 12 years after Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., had been trounced by Lyndon Johnson, that “Arizona is the only state where mothers don’t tell their children they can grow up to be president.”

It would be a welcome antidote to the bitter, ill-tempered sourness now afflicting our body politic.

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.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.