Laughing All The Way to New Hampshire — Political Humor

A funny thing happened on the way to The White House.  At least that seems to be the case if you watch the campaign trail.  Humor is the candidate’s friend…if used well.  From Mike Huckabee playing guitar with the Tonight Show band, to Hillary Clinton delivering The Top Ten List on David Letterman, they know the value of having fun and using humor during the campaign:  Enhancing their image, driving home their message, minimizing the impact of attacks.  Business leaders can learn from their example.

Make a mistake?  Laugh it off.  Mitt Romney at a stop in Iowa mixed up his words.  “I won’t remember my friends here in Iowa.”  He was quickly corrected by his wife, Ann, “You said I won’t remember.”  “I said I won’t forget…I’m often corrected.  This is good.  This is like spell check right here.”  If you can laugh at your mistakes, it’s less likely that people will laugh at YOU.

Make lemonade.  Hillary Clinton was within range a hot microphone while singing the National Anthem off key.  It became a target for jokes.  The Clinton camp turned it into a commercial for the Iowa Caucus, using video footage of the singing.  “Exercising is hard.  Dancing is hard.  Singing is hard…Caucusing is easy.”  Laughing at yourself makes you human.

Spouses are funny too.  John Edwards was interrupted during a campaign speech by his wife Elizabeth who was busy signing autographs.  He tried to get her attention three times, each time using a different tone of voice.  Although he was smiling and laughing, it was an awkward moment.  She approached the microphone and said, “I can’t help it if people like me!”  Laughter and applause showed the audience’s approval.

Be in the moment.  At the December 12 Republican debate, the candidates were asked about their position on global warming.  After Alan Keyes talked for 30 seconds without addressing the issue, Fred Thompson said, “I agree with Alan Keyes’ position on global warming.”  A big laugh followed.  Being totally present allows a politician to listen and respond to what’s happening on the spot.

Zingers on offense and defense.  Mike Huckabee arrived at the December 12 Republican debate armed with a line about the Edwards $400 haircut.  Referring to runaway federal spending, Huckabee said, “We’ve had Congress that’s spent money like Edwards at a beauty shop.”  But John Edwards was already busy doing damage control.  Earlier on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno noted that Edwards celebrated his anniversary at Wendy’s.  Edwards replied, “You can’t spend money on food when you’re spending money on haircuts.”

In control when the unexpected happens.  Rudolph Giuliani, the June 6 Republican debate, was responding to a question about abortion which referred to a quote by a Catholic Bishop.  As he began to answer, the sound system was distorted by lightening.  Giuliani responded, “For someone who went to parochial school all of his life, this is a very frightening thing!”  A timely quip shows the audience that the candidate is in control.

Answering questions with a funny line.  In the September 26 Democratic debate, Tim Russert asked Barack Obama, “Have you been successful in stopping smoking?”  Obama replied, “I have. You know, the best cure is my wife.”  The truth is funny.  People can relate to it, and that helps make the comment funny.  Candidates often prepare light-hearted responses to anticipated questions.

Less is more.  The December 12 Republican debate closed with asking the candidates:  “Please suggest a New Years resolution for one of your opponents here today.”  This was an invitation which almost begs for a humorous punchline.  The candidates were wise enough to avoid closing with a zinger and instead stayed “on message.”  Although some of the answers sounded a bit like they were borrowed from a beauty pageant.  Use humor strategically and sparingly.  Don’t be too eager to be funny or you’re likely to shoot yourself in the foot. 

They get help.  Many presidential candidates have a staff member writing humor lines.  It makes sense.  Late-night talk show stars Leno and Letterman have a staff of writers.  As legendary funnyman Bob Hope put it, “Do I need writers?  Only if I want to say something funny.”  A good joke writer is probably more valuable than a hair stylist and makeup artist.

The Bottom Line.  A sense of humor is a great asset to a politician.  Two of the most popular presidents of the past 40 years were probably Kennedy and Reagan.  They were probably the best communicators and the best at using humor.  I just searched Amazon and found the books The Kennedy Wit and The Reagan Wit.  They seemed to be totally out of The Nixon Wit.