Kerr: American politics needs a sense of humor -

Is it the cure for everything that’s wrong with American politics? No probably not.

But some of the practitioners of the art might be wise to give it try. Something to help bring us back to some kind of center and, perhaps most of all, not take ourselves so darned seriously.

Whether it’s the presidency, Congress, our state legislature or the board of supervisors, we’ve lost our sense of humor.

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of people lampooning politics. But the politicians seem to have lost the art of humor. The days of politicians making fun of themselves or coming up with clever quips about their opponents seem to have gotten lost in the 24-hour news cycle.

Many members show up in Washington, Richmond and even in our local governments, so strident and so serious that the notion of making a quip, or even telling a story, seems outside their ability. Others have simply become frightened that a joke or one-liner might backfire and overnight be spread over cyberspace.

It’s almost as if humor and being funny have been purged from the political landscape. That’s a shame, because when things get tough, when tempers flare, or when someone’s ego needs readjusting, there is nothing like a good story or a funny joke to set things right.

As Beau Champs said in the Richmond Times Dispatch last month, “…jokes in politics are a way of making a human connection.”

Some of the most famous American politicians were masters of the art of humor. Many times it was delightfully self-deprecating.

Abraham Lincoln, not generally considered a handsome man, once said in response to the accusation that he was two faced: “Do you think if I was two-faced that I would be using this one?” Even Calvin Coolidge, perhaps one of the most reserved presidents in our history, when asked why he insisted on a two-hour nap each day replied, “When you’re asleep you can’t make any bad decisions.”

Ronald Reagan was so given to one-liners and jokes that he frequently got himself into trouble. But Reagan never seemed to mind, and he never gave up on using his ad-libbed quips. One of his more notable, making fun of his own relaxed management style, came when he said, “With so many trouble spots around the world, I’ve told my aides that if they hear of any trouble they should wake me up immediately. Even when I’m in a Cabinet meeting.”

Al Gore wasn’t anyone’s idea of a humorous vice president, but there were times when he managed to step out of that rigid persona. Shortly after his narrow defeat in the 2000 presidential election, he introduced himself to an audience with “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States of America.” It suddenly, as humor often does, made him seem more human and far more likable. If only he could have done that during the campaign.

In 1996, during a budget standoff with Congress that had closed a large part of the government, Bill Clinton and several congressional leaders had gone on an official trip on Air Force One. On the trip home, as the plane was parking at Andrews Air Force Base, the president was told by a reporter that Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was miffed because he hadn’t been invited to the presidential cabin. The speaker said that if he had, he might have been willing to resolve the deadlock. When Clinton heard this he responded, “If I had known that, I would have let him fly the plane.”

Of course, there is the familiar joke that can still get a laugh in my American Politics class, “How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer: four–one to change the lightbulb and three to talk about how good the old one was.

And there was the late Virginia Lt. Gov. Henry Howell’s quip, “that the American eagle can’t fly on just one right wing.”

Political quips, jokes and one-liners have the potential to become history. They can diffuse a crisis or change the entire tenor of a conversation. They can be self-deprecating and fun.

Many of the most memorable political stories and jokes weren’t harsh. They were just funny. Shortly before he left office, former Virginia U.S. Sen. John Warner suggested that we stop putting more coal on the fire and tell few funny stories instead. It sounds like good advice to me.

David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at


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