When was the last time you heard a politician make a joke? No, seriously, when was the last time you heard a politician say something that made you laugh?
I am not talking about those times the current president says something so outrageous, or heinous that we laugh to mask our horror.
Like, when was the last time you remember a politician saying something truly funny?
For me, it was when Obama, in his last State of the Union Address, responded to those in the audience who were clapping after he mentioned that he had “no more campaigns to run,” by saying, “I know because I won both of them.”
Three decades prior, another president gave us an A-list example of a politician using humor in a formal setting.
In the 1984 Presidential debate between Ronald Reagan, who was running for a second term, and Walter Mondale who was 56.
Reagan, who was 73 at the time, faced much criticism surrounding his age. Mid-debate he remarked to the audience in jest, “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
These two sentences, reflective of Reagan’s quick wit and agile mind, almost singlehandedly assuaged public concern over his advanced age.
Obama’s retort similarly showcased his confidence and political swagger.
Humor can be used as an extremely effective political tool, and I think our body politic needs more of it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that humor should be used to make light of any of the pressing political issues of the day.
Seeing politicians make light of healthcare policy would leave a bad taste in my mouth.
Seeing politicians use congressional hearings on climate change as their own personal stand-up routine would be dangerous and distasteful.
Actually, seeing politicians use congressional hearings as their own personal stand-up routine is dangerous and distasteful.
A few weeks ago, Senator Mike Lee brought a posterboard depiction of a young Ronald Reagan firing a rifle while riding a T-Rex in front of a tattered American flag to harp on how passing the Green New Deal would be disastrous.
In the same hearing, he sarcastically contended that the best way to solve climate change “is to fall in love, get married, and have some kids.”
Now what Lee thought was funny actually came off as just the opposite.
Ridiculing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s signature piece of legislation to her face came off as condescending, off-putting and downright rude.
Independent of Lee’s views on climate change, his taking precious time during a crucial congressional hearing on an issue to which the literal future of the planet is attached to share his sarcastic solutions was downright dangerous.
It was evidence that humor, employed in formal political settings, should be used carefully.
Countless presidents have been part of hilarious bits at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Laura Bush delivered a speech making fun of her husband’s eternal mispronunciation of the word nuclear, and we all know about Keegan-Michael Key’s role as Luther, Obama’s outrageous “anger translator.”
Here, we see how important a role humor can have in humanizing a politician.
The Luther sketch gave the public the opportunity to connect with Obama’s workplace frustrations.
Sure, not everyone’s workplace frustrations surround a stagnant Congress, but still, frustration is frustration, and Obama felt a bit more human when we could identify with his.
Humor can have a role beyond an individual’s political rapport. It can help lighten the mood in Washington.
Again, I am not advocating for levity in the face of pressing political issues or affronts to democracy and the country’s values.
Self-deprecating humor that points out personal shortcomings and humor that respectfully highlights political disagreements and critiques can both be used as vehicles to create a less caustic political environment and more effective legislature.
Tasteful humor is enjoyable, and the more good humor that is included in the body politic, the more enjoyable and accessible the oftentimes opaque political system will be.