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Mark Shields: Sullen Mood of Obama White House Makes for a Joyless Capital

Dyspeptic, humorless attitude is bringing everyone down

President John F. Kennedy in 1963 gave his White House special assistant and close personal friend Dave Powers a silver beer mug for his birthday, on which was inscribed:

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

“There are three things which are real:
God, human folly and laughter.
The first two are beyond our comprehension.
So we must do what we can with the third.”

Kennedy could heed his own counsel. In a presidential news conference when a reporter said, “There’s a feeling in some quarters, sir, that Big Business is forcing you to come to terms. Businessmen seem to have the attitude, ‘Now we have you where we want you,’” Kennedy’s spontaneous retort, “I can’t believe I’m where Big Business wants me,” left the room in laughter.

By contrast, Washington today is a melancholy place. Yes, the broken economy continues to inflict immense pain and fear throughout the nation. But then, the Soviets’ erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis pushed the world toward nuclear war. Can anyone recall even a semi-memorable self-deprecating line, poking fun at himself, spoken by President Barack Obama?

To the outside observer, this White House reflects no joy. When Obama’s most important advisers are interviewed, they invariably wear frowns while regularly faulting the shallowness of the media, especially television news, along with the pint-sized attention span of Washingtonians.

They look dyspeptic and leave the unmistakable impression they would prefer to be working and living someplace, make that any place, else other than the District of Columbia. Vice President Joe Biden, who mostly seems delighted to be where he is, professionally and geographically, is the conspicuous exception.

True, Washington and the federal government are both profoundly unpopular across the country. But the Democrats, whether they like it or not, have a long history of championing a strong, constructive role for the national government. Republicans are the anti-government party. If the contest in 2010 or beyond is simply over which party dislikes Washington or the federal government more, Democrats lose and Republicans win.

From your own experience, whom would you prefer to sit next to in your carpool? Someone who is upbeat and obviously enjoys and values what he or she is doing, or some dour soul who reminds us of H.L. Mencken’s definition of the puritan — someone who is haunted by the fear that someone somewhere may be happy?

Nearly every administration in some way makes us smile. In 1962, Vaughn Meader, a 26-year-old stand-up comic, perfectly mimicked JFK’s accent on a recording that spoofed the Kennedys and that sold 1.2 albums in its first two weeks of release and 7.5 million overall.

Comedians Rich Little and Jim Morris both captured President Ronald Reagan’s distinctive style, and Little and David Frye almost made President Richard Nixon funny. President Gerald Ford (who insisted that his Republican challenger in 1976, Reagan, didn’t dye his hair but instead that it was just “prematurely orange”) made comedian Chevy Chase a star.

Who doesn’t grin when reminded of Dana Carvey’s brilliant President George H.W. Bush, Darrell Hammond’s President Bill Clinton or Will Ferrell’s President George W. Bush?

Because the Obama presidency is neither humorous nor apparently much fun, the late-night comedians have produced few humorous one-liners about the administration. But far more important is the sullen mood from the White House, which directly infects the federal city and indirectly the general populace.

Let me offer this blunt advice to those in the White House: Yes, you are making enormous sacrifices — personal and, perhaps, professional — to work long hours under intense pressure while subjected to unfair criticism. But just think how lucky you are to be able to contribute and, possibly, make this a world a little more just.

There are thousands of people, in greater Washington alone, who would give a limb to be able to do what you do every day. Do yourself and the nation a favor: Be grateful, be enthusiastic, be hopeful, be cheerful. Dare to smile and, occasionally even, to laugh at yourself. It makes a difference.

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.

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