Even in an age of overly orchestrated and audience-tested messages from candidates, it's remarkable how much a spontaneous remark can do to change the tenor of the campaign. Last week, Sarah Palin's genuinely amusing and apparently unscripted one-liner about pit bulls and hockey moms brought down the house in St. Paul, Minn. Furthermore, it gave the delegates the green light to laugh harder at her not-very-funny put-down of community organizers. This was not old-fashioned American homespun; it was deep sarcasm. It stung, and that's why the crowd loved it.
Her cutting remarks were a reminder that politics is about much more than education and the economy—it's also about making your opponent look bad and, if possible, getting people to laugh at him (or her, as we will now have to say). Let's face it: Sarcasm works, whether deployed as a fine stiletto (arched eyebrow, double-entendre; say, Dick Cavett, 1972) or a blunt instrument (the full-on smash-mouth assault, Palin, 2008).
When did the Republicans become the party of wit? Liberals don't like to admit it, but George W. Bush deserves some credit—the man can be funny, and making sardonic fun of "elites" has been a core part of his routine since he entered politics. As a candidate in 2000, he went on Letterman and did well, making fun of his talent for mangled syntax: "A lot of folks don't think I can string a sentence together, so when I was able to do so, it, uh—Expectations were so low, all I had to do was say, 'Hi, I'm George W. Bush.' " Ronald Reagan is remembered as a sincere, emotive kind of speaker, but he, too, had a cornball genius. He would hear a good joke, write it out on one of his cards, and deliver it again and again and again until it was perfect. For example: "Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I've come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first." Or: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' " Invariably, Reagan's jokes were about overspending Democrats, or clueless politicians, or people who tried to cut themselves off from the mainstream—exactly the kinds of people Palin was trying to throw to the pit bulls.
Rather than complaining about Palin's cruel barbs and W's smirking put-downs of "the angry left," liberals should reclaim laughter. Wednesday night was encouraging for Democrats—Barack Obama uncorked a few one-liners on Letterman, including a good one about his imminent centerfold in Popular Mechanics. But humor was notably lacking in the 2000 and 2004 contests. Nor was it a regular feature of the Clinton campaigns, despite the fact that Bill Clinton was from the right kind of state to get away with heehaw jokes about rich Republicans.
A quick walk though the history of political humor suggests that in the grand scheme of things, the Democrats have had an easier time of it than Republicans—much as you would expect from a party that claims to represent the disenfranchised, the people who have been laughing at their social betters for thousands of years. The last politician to zing a convention as effectively as Palin did was Ann Richards, the formidable, beehived governor of Texas—a Democrat. Her 1988 oration was a work of genius, not only for its classic line that George H.W. Bush was born with "a silver foot in his mouth"—a much more complex and interesting joke than anything Palin said—but also for its New Deal earthiness and brassy feminism. Richards was on fire that night. Another fondly remembered line from the female perspective brought the house down: "If you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels." She poked fun at herself, a tactic W would later master; she spoke with perfect pitch to small-town America; and she sliced the opposition so playfully that many Democrats wished she had been the nominee.
Throughout the 1960s, the laughs were clearly on the side of the Democrats. In 1960, John F. Kennedy quickly established a reputation for his acerbic wit and lively exchanges with reporters, which set an enormous contrast with the starchy Richard Nixon. Kennedy could make fun of government elites ("Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm"), but more often he made fun of everything, himself included ("When we got into office the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we'd been saying they were"). Eight years later, during his comeback, Nixon tried, somewhat lamely, to establish himself as a comedic force by asking, deadpan, "Sock it to me?" on Laugh-In. At least give him credit for trying.