Since when are Republicans better at humor than Democrats?

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Sept. 12 2008 3:56 PM

Grand Old Wit

Since when are Republicans better at humor than Democrats?

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It wasn't terribly difficult to be funnier than the Republican Party of the 1950s and 1960s. (Dwight Eisenhower actually titled a memoir At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends.) But the Democrats owned humor well before that. Harry Truman delivered a rip-roaring stump speech at the 1948 Philadelphia Democratic Convention. He dismissed Republican claims as "poppycock" and announced that he was hauling the do-nothing 80th Congress back into session on a day all Missouri farmers knew as "Turnip day"—the day you were supposed to sow your turnips, wet or dry. The crowd ate it up, even if no one outside of Missouri knew what "Turnip Day" meant. It sounded like he meant business—and as the GOP found out, he did. 

It was impossible for Truman's mentor, the patrician Franklin D. Roosevelt, to needle his enemies by sounding underprivileged, but he, too, could turn a phrase. Throughout the New Deal, when class tensions were high, Roosevelt's rollicking sense of humor allowed him to take liberties that other presidents couldn't have allowed themselves. In the final week of the 1940 campaign, he gave an incendiary speech at the old Madison Square Garden. Roosevelt covered the serious topics—the war in Europe dominated the list—but in the process took delight in ridiculing the GOP for its "weasel words" (then a new phrase) and isolationism. The culmination of the speech came with his rhyming attack against three GOP antagonists who had flip-flopped on the war and other issues, Reps. Joseph Martin (the minority leader), Bruce Barton, and Hamilton Fish. To the rapture of the crowd, which repeated it in unison, FDR singled out all the times when "Martin, Barton, and Fish" had voted the wrong way.

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Maybe Democrats could even learn something from the Republicans of old. In its earliest days, when it was formed to smash the do-nothing politics of the 1850s, the Republican Party was able to pull off the Washington-outsider bit legitimately. The funniest president in our history was almost certainly Abraham Lincoln, who told jokes both on- and off-color during his long and lonely rise from obscurity and made devastating use of wit as he confronted the hypocrisy of the "slave power" and the smug forces of the status quo ("Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally"). Lincoln knew from personal experience that anger was effective only up to a point, and that ridicule could be far more effective in winning over an anxious audience. Whatever he needed to make a speech work—Aesop-like farm animals, farmers' daughters, you name it—he could find it in his limitless repertoire of frontier stories.

It seems almost un-American not to make use of this tradition. For no matter how far back we go in our history, the humor is always there, the carping laughter at the margins of what appears to be the deadly serious business of electing presidents. It was there when the Whig Party devastated the Democratic Martin Van Buren (from a poor background but given to fancy airs) for his perfume, corsets, and effete appearance. (Davy Crockett said it was helpful that Van Buren wore sideburns, because otherwise it might not have been clear whether he was a man or a woman.) It was there at the Constitutional Convention itself, when Ben Franklin proposed that all sessions begin with a prayer, and Alexander Hamilton snorted that they had no need of "foreign aid." It was there when Franklin started his own career, half a century earlier, by making fun of the slowest-moving targets an American humorist ever had—the Puritans.

Will the Democrats rediscover the raucous laughter that has been noticeably missing for its last few campaigns? If history, the laws of physics, and the demands of a restless population are any guide, then, yes, they will begin to turn the attack around against a GOP that—let's face it—is elitist, entrenched, and doddering. (For God's sake, its middle name is "Old.") By unsheathing a surprisingly sharp wit, Palin drew first blood, and no one should fault her for doing what vice presidential candidates are supposed to do. Now that the contest is wide open, let's see whether there are any pit bulls on the other side.

Ted Widmer recently publishedArk of the Liberties: America and the World. He was a speechwriter for President Clinton.

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