Monday, September 8, 2008

Obama's joke hold

“I like a man who grins when he fights.” –Sir Winston Churchill
Now that Republicans have wrapped up their National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, nominating Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin for president and vice president, Democrats are wondering why their man, Sen. Barack Obama, has not opened up a wider lead in the polls. 2008, after all, is supposed to be a Democratic year. Perhaps the problem is the Obama campaign’s lack of humour.

After the 1996 presidential race, when defeated Republican candidate Sen. Bob Dole began to show flashes of his natural sense of humour in public, he was asked why he had spent the campaign acting like one of the angry apple trees from The Wizard of Oz, demanding of the American people, “How would you like it if someone picked something off of you?” Dole replied that voters do not want to elect a comedian to be their commander-in-chief, and he is correct. But a candidate’s sense of humour is less about being an unbearable yuckster than having the ability to laugh at one’s self. And the laughter, or lack of it, in a campaign is symbiotic between the person whose name is on the ticket and the folks who support him.

The impenetrable humourlessness of the Obama campaign is being noticed by the American people, even if they have not yet put it into words. But this serious, self-important tone did not begin when Obama first decided to stick his chin in the air like Mussolini while giving speeches (“Did you read THAT? He compared Obama to a dictator! The attack machine rolls on!”). Rather, the unbearable earnestness of his advocates was part of the project from the beginning.

In this topsy-turvy world, it is comforting to have some certainties. One of them is that, if you criticize Obama in the public square, no matter how substantively on any issue from taxes to trade, you WILL get letters. And they will not be notes of the “having a good time at camp” variety. You will be accused of racism, fascism, ignorance, ugliness, and poor grammar. The rage, you will find, is completely disproportional to questioning a capital gains tax hike or wondering aloud just what a “community organizer” might be. And there is no room in the indignation for some sense of humour about “The One.”

To the extent Obama does laugh at himself, it is that insufferable sort of Teacher's Pet faux-deprecation about how he is too doggone dedicated or, when he dares, some silliness about having big ears or "a funny name." But his unbecoming self-regard is not so much about cracking wise as a style of speaking that suggests someone should be copying down his words and dividing them into verses.

It is often said that when Americans elect a president, they are inviting him into their living rooms for the next four years. It would be irresponsible for folks to spend all that time watching comedies, since these are dangerous times in a dangerous world. But for Obama, a touch of humour, and humility, might not go amiss. Voters prefer candidates who can tackle serious issues without taking themselves too seriously.