I while ago, I picked up a copy of Bob Dole’s book, “Great Presidential Wit (…I wish I was in this book)”, at my beloved Building 19. It’s a great little book, with Dole finding humorous stories, quotes, and anecdotes about the 42 men who’ve held the highest office in our land. And while it certainly wasn’t intended to provoke any serious thought or debate, I’m coming to two conclusions after reading it.
1) When given a chance, Americans will choose to vote for the funnier candidate.
I can’t quite say this has been conclusive throughout US history, but it certainly has held true for all the presidential elections I can remember.
2000 – Bush, again, vs. Gore’s futile attempts to recover from decades as Mr. Stiff As A Board, Mr. Frumpy, Mr. Serious Wonk.
1996 – Amiable, gregarious Bill Clinton vs. Grumpy Old Bob Dole.
1992 – Amiable, gregarious Bill Clinton vs. befuddled, flailing George H. W. Bush
1988 – George H. W. Bush was no laugh riot, but the Democrats put up Michael Dukakis. MICHAEL DUKAKIS, people.
1984 – Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale. Carter’s veep? “There you go again!” To be fair, though, I think it would have taken Steven Wright or Robin Williams to beat Reagan in 1984.
1980 – Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter, the somber, scolding, weak-spined milksop who’d aged 20 years in one term and sent the country straight down the crapper.
1976 – Smiling, happy Jimmy Carter (who told Playboy that he “lusted in his heart”) vs. Gerald Ford and the legacy of Watergate.
2) Presidents with good senses of humor tend to do far better in office than those lacking.
Those presidents who are often listed as the greatest are also the ones we remember for their wit. We don’t remember them FOR their wit, but it seems such an essential part of their character. Lincoln, Reagan, the Roosevelts, and Kennedy tend to gravitate to the top of both lists, while Millard Fillmore, the Harrisons, Grant, and my fellow New Hampshirite Franklin Pierce get low marks on both scores.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think that a good sense of humor is vital to succes in politics. It gives one a sense of perspective. It lets one connect with the public. And it displays a sense of commonality with the public, if one can get them to laugh WITH the candidate, and not AT them.
And I wish to hell we’d seen THIS Bob Dole back in 1996, and not Angry, Grumpy Bob Dole. The guy who wrote this book, the guy who did the Pepsi commercials, the guy who said that after losing the race for Vice-President in 1976 that he’d slept like a baby on election night — “I woke up every two hours and cried” — he might have pulled off a miracle and beaten Bill Clinton. He might have spared the nation the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the quagmire in the Balkans, the worse-than-useless “deals” with North Korea on nuclear weapons, and a host of other delightful legacies from Clinton’s 2nd term. That Bob Dole might have won.