Political Humor — Awkward Moments

On Monday, November 12, Senator John McCain received a question from a woman in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.  It was a crude and politically incorrect question using the word Bitch.  Here are some excerpts from that news conference. 

Woman:  How do we beat the bitch?

McCain:  May I give the translation?

Man in audience:  I thought she was talking about my ex-wife.

McCain:  That’s an excellent question.

McCain:  I respect Senator Clinton.  I respect anyone who gets the nomination of the Democrat party.

Here’s a link to the news conference so you can watch it for yourself.

From a Humor-In-Speaking point of view, here are my observations:

1.  For starters, the woman asking the question unintentionally was shooting her candidate in the foot.  In her “moment of personal truth” or in an attempt to get a cheap laugh, she put her candidate on the spot while the cameras were rolling.  Speaking before you think can get any of us in trouble.  Trying too hard to be cute and funny often backfires.  Once it leaves the mouth it’s too late to take it back.

2.  The audience reacts with nervous laughter.  It was an awkward situation.  A man in the audience tries to diffuse the tension with an ad lib reference to his ex-wife.

3.  Let’s look at what John McCain did well, and not so well, in responding to the question:


   – He paused before respoding, to gather his thoughts.

   – He tried not to laugh while at the same time he was trying to think of a humorous way to disarm the question.

   – After the ad lib from the audience, McCain’s body language says, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

   – “I respect Senator Clinton,” was the right thing to say.


   – His response made it clear that he understood the reference was describing Senator Clinton.  That reaction says, “Well, we all know who she’s talking about.”  While that might be true, on the surface, it appears to buy into the use of the label.  More on this later.

   – “That’s a good question.”  While the essence of the question, how-do-we-win-the-election, was good; the way it was asked was inappropriate, outside the local bar.  He makes the poor choice of saying “that’s a good question” probably in the interest of saying something that would avoid putting down his supporter who asked the question.

   – “I respect Senator Clinton,” was followed by “I respect anyone who gets the nomination of the Democrat party.”  This is the infamous YES…BUT structure where the second part of the sentence cancels out the positive effect of the first part.  It appears to say “I respect Senator Clinton, not for the person she is, but for the support she might receive from her Democrat party.”

FINAL ANALYSIS (It’s easy to be a Monday Morning Quarterback)

4.  John McCain was put in an awkward position by a supporter.  Overall, considering he was improvising in the hot-spot, he did a fair-to-good job of handling it.  Not a great job.  One alternative way of responding might be: “Well, for starters, I wouldn’t use that word.  I respect Senator Clinton.  The good news is that a recent Rasmussen poll shows us with a 3 point lead in a head-to-head match-up with the Senator.” 

That structure attempts to put the B-word in it’s place, separates him from the word without directly criticizing his supporter (the political tightrope), gives an unqualified statement of respect to Clinton and ends with the true punch-line:  A poll showing a 3 point lead.

5.  What about the issue of implying that he knew that the statement was a reference to Clinton?  If we’re honest, we know that nearly everyone, Democrats included, knew to whom the woman was referring.  But that by no means equals agreement with the use of the word or with the accuracy of the label or delight with the question.  Understanding the question and agreeing with the choice of words are two very different issues.