For a long time, I’ve said that one of the keys to understanding a president — and a good gauge of measuring their success — is to take a look at their sense of humor. Well, today we saw a glimpse of Barack Obama’s sense of humor — and I didn’t like it.
Yesterday, at his first press conference since the election, Obama was asked if he had consulted with past presidents since winning the election last Tuesday. His response:
“…in terms of speaking to former presidents, I have spoken to all of them, that are still living, obviously, president Clinton… hey, I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances…”
A small thing, but highly revealing.
Obama caught himself saying something awkward — that he had spoken to all former presidents. Technically, this would include the dead ones. A minor fumble, easily excused.
So he covered himself, adding the clarification that he only meant the living ones, aimed at any jibes about him speaking with dead presidents.
Then, to deflect even that possibility of criticism, he decides to turn his tiny verbal gaffe into a joke. A sound strategy.
But where most people would make it a self-deprecating one, he instead chooses to make it about someone else. And the first person to come to his mind is… Nancy Reagan.
Nancy Reagan, widow of a former president, 20 years out of the White House, and recovering from a broken hip.
Yup, who better to lampoon than an 87-year=old crippled widow?
Even better, there’s another layer to the joke that bears scrutiny: not only is it mean-spirited, it is factually incorrect.
Nancy Reagan, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, never held a seance or spoke to the dead in the White House.
Taken at its most cynical, one could argue that Obama knew that once people started looking at his remarks, they would be reminded of this and once again be grateful that he had spared the nation of another Clinton in the Oval Office.
I doubt that, though. Instead, I think that he still has a lot of dirt about Hillary floating around in the back of his mind, and conflated her chats with the deceased with Nancy Reagan’s flirtation with the supernatural, and tossed out his line in response.
It’s classic Obama: in the guise of humor, he deflects attention away from himself by poking fun at someone else — and in this case, someone who is utterly powerless and defenseless and unlikely to retaliate with a witticism of her own, or even complain.
The later phone call of apology is the icing on the cake: it defuses the attack and prevents even the possibility of the victim lashing back.
Recently, a commenter reminded me of a story from a reporter named Nick Lovelady. It seems that Lovelady was working to impress a young female news intern. And then, at a news conference, Obama singled him out and teased him on his “baby face,” and he never heard from the young lady again.
He wrote a column about it, demanding an apology — and, amazingly enough, Obama called to apologize. Obama’s staff recorded the call and sent it on to NPR’s “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me,” and they played it on the air.
(The full story, including Lovelady’s two columns on the subject, can be found here.)
Same pattern: Obama jokes around at another’s expense, then later calls and apologizes — and makes sure that word of the apology gets out, too.
I don’t particularly care for what it says about President-Elect Obama.