Joke's on You

Joke's on You

Joke's on You

How you look at things.
Nov. 12 1999 3:30 AM

Joke's on You

Eight years ago, Al Gore and his fellow Democrats had great sport with the gaffes of Vice President Dan Quayle. You remember the jokes: Quayle misspelled "potato," botched the United Negro College Fund slogan ("What a waste it is to lose one's mind"), etc. A few months ago, Republicans turned this tactic on Gore, mocking his suggestion that he had helped "create the Internet." Now Gore is applying the same derision to George W. Bush. All three episodes illustrate an important principle of negative campaigning: If you don't have something nice to say about someone, say it with humor.

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In a CNN interview eight months ago, Gore asserted, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." A day later, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, told the Associated Press he had "cracked up" over Gore's claim: "If the vice president created the Internet, then I created the interstate highway system." In a satirical press release, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., exclaimed, "I had no idea my friend Al Gore created the Internet." The Republican Leadership Council aired TV ads linking Gore's Internet claim to similar assertions that he "lived on a farm" and "undertook the task to reinvent the Federal government." The ad accused Gore of "trying to reinvent reality."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The Gore jokes, like the Quayle jokes, poisoned their target without projecting malice. They seized on a single misstatement, exaggerated it, and inflated it into a comprehensive critique of the candidate. In each case, the statement was useful to the candidate's enemies because it touched on a weakness that 1) was similarly reflected in other comments by the candidate and 2) directly undermined his campaign rationale. In Quayle's case, the rationale was national security, and the weakness was stupidity. In Gore's case, the rationale is economic progress, and the weakness is taking undue credit.

If Gore had called Quayle a "fool," Gore would have looked mean, and swing voters, being suspicious, would have doubted the charge. If Armey had called Gore a "liar," these voters would have assumed that Armey was lying about Gore. The way to slip the accusation past this barrier of incredulity is to pose the idea indirectly, through satire--to savage your enemy with a smile. Once the idea is planted in the voter's head this way, the voter thinks it was his idea to begin with--and he begins to embellish it. The next time Quayle makes a mistake, the voter thinks to himself, "There goes that Quayle again. What a moron."

Bush has gradually applied this lesson to his criticism of Gore. In his campaign kickoff speech last June, Bush was too heavy-handed: "Some in this administration think they invented [prosperity]. But they did not invent prosperity, any more than they invented the Internet." By October, however, Bush had lightened his touch: "If [what Clinton and Gore have done] is reinventing government, it makes you wonder how this administration was ever skilled enough and efficient enough to create the Internet."

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This week, Gore returned the favor. Tuesday morning, radio talk show host Don Imus asked Gore whether Bush should "have been able to identify the leaders of Taiwan, India, Pakistan, and Chechnya" when Bush was quizzed about those countries a week ago. In the quiz, Bush had failed to name three of those leaders and had asserted that the leader of Pakistan, a general who had overthrown the country's elected government, recently "took over office … is going to bring stability to the country, and I think that's good news for the subcontinent." Here's how Gore answered Imus' question:

"I sympathize with those who say that that's not really a fair test. I think that it is troubling that he didn't know [that] it's important to stand up for democracy, and that a military coup overthrowing a democracy is not good news. And I think it's important … and troubling that he didn't know it's in our interests to stop the spread of nuclear weapons with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. I mean, this is a part of the world where it's probably most likely that you're going to see serious problems in the future unless something's done."

Gore went on: "But not knowing the names … I think that's kind of understandable. I mean, the other day I was talking to Otkir Sultonov. You know, the prime minister of Uzbekistan. And he asked me, 'Did you send a birthday card to Hamed?' That's of course Hamed Karoui, the prime minister of Tunisia. I had just been talking about him with Ion Sturza, the prime minister of Moldova. We're old friends. We actually met through a mutual friend, Lennart Meri, the president of Estonia, of course."

Imus ribbed Gore over the joke, and the media have been playing with it ever since. "WITH TONGUE IN CHEEK, AL GORES BUSH," roared the New York Post. "GORE THROWS IMUS A RADIO FUNNY BONE," agreed the New York Daily News.

Gore's joke may look funny, but as a political kidney punch, it's dead serious. Bush's campaign rationale is that he'll keep America strong and make Americans proud. His weakness is that he's ignorant of world affairs ("Grecians," "Kosovians," etc.) and has a track record as a bad and indifferent student. By criticizing Bush's answers to the world affairs quiz, Gore is trying to inflate Bush's weakness and discredit Bush's rationale. And by following up his serious accusation (i.e., that Bush showed indifference to the Pakistani coup and ignorance of the region's nuclear importance) with a lighthearted recitation of the leaders of obscure countries, Gore is sugarcoating his indictment of Bush so that listeners will laugh, swallow, and absorb it.

It's true that Democrats cynically oversimplified Quayle's blunders. It's equally true that Republicans cynically oversimplified Gore's statement about the Internet. And it's true that Gore is now doing the same to Bush. But it's also true that in every case, these cynical charges have stuck. You call this tactic outrageous? C'mon, lighten up.