The nation's capital is gearing up for its "silly season" - that
gauntlet of dinners from January through April that can launch a
political star. Or not. Knock 'em dead at an event like the Gridiron
Club or White House Correspondents' Dinner and a politician can
become Steve Allen overnight. The right joke, deftly told, is also a
preemptive strike. It can ease a scandal, derail an attack, or make
someone more likable, even if they're not.
But it's also easy to strike out on the Washington humor circuit.
Lines that get laughs in New York or Los Angeles can look coarse,
or, worse, naive here.
Those that can help politicians navigate humor - a shifting corps
of funnymen and women ranging from professional joke writers to
think-tankers, journalists, and congressional staff - are prized.
Unlike the serious speech writers, most of the purveyors of punch
lines like to remain anonymous, for understandable reasons:
Politicians don't want to look like the wrong end of a ventriloquist
The writers steal (shamelessly) from each other, and the fight to
have the last edit on a political stand-up routine can be as fierce
as the one over a State of the Union address. The reason? Jokes are
serious business in politics.
"It's mandatory in this day and age to be considered to have a
sense of humor and to demonstrate it," says Robert Orben, a comedy
writer for Red Skelton and Jack Paar before moving to Washington to
direct President Ford's White House speech-writing department.
"You're not paying me for a joke," he tells clients. "You're paying
me for the right joke."
One of the gold standards for political humor in this town is
still a Gridiron Dinner in 1958. Sen. John Kennedy, in the hunt for
the presidency, rose to speak after a skit roasting him for using
his father's money to buy his first Senate race. No fools, the
Kennedy team anticipated this line of attack. When it was the
Massachusetts senator's turn to respond, he read a "telegram" from
his father: "Jack: Don't spend one dime more than is necessary. I'll
be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide."
Humor in politics, of course, hasn't always been so scripted.
Abraham Lincoln was renowned for his wryness, which even got him in
trouble. Critics vilified him for "inappropriate" humor in a time of
war, though some of that might have been his targets. He once said
of Congress: "I have been told I was on the road to hell, but I had
no idea it was just a mile down the road with a dome on it."
With the advent of radio and television, humor took on new
significance in Washington. Suddenly, whimsy could be amplified to a
wider audience. "You can date the rise of presidential humor to the
television age," says Mark Katz, a humor writer for President
Clinton and Vice President Gore and founder of the Sound Bite
Institute in New York.
"The real power of humor is [that] it speaks to subtext," he
adds. "It allows politicians to say things that might otherwise not
Some in Washington have always been more adept at it than others.
President Reagan changed the momentum in his second debate with
Walter Mondale (D) with one now-famous joke. The line was aimed at
countering the unspoken suggestion that he was too old for the job.
"I will not exploit, for political purposes, the youth and
inexperience of my opponent," he said.
Gerald Ford helped defuse his image as a presidential klutz -
relentlessly mocked on late-night shows - with a single borscht-
belt move. When he got up to give his speech at the 1976 banquet of
the Radio-Television Correspondents Association, he made sure to
take the tablecloth with him, sending dishes, glasses, and
silverware tumbling to the floor. …