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Ha Ha -- It’s Politics

Roy Esaki

George Bush’s and Al Gore’s misstatements, idiosyncrasies, and lapses of judgment on the campaign trail have frustrated and disappointed many Americans. But when the presidential candidates have used humor in deliberate and pointed ways, they have helped make politics accessible, interesting, and noteworthy to a TV audience of John Q. Sixpacks, most of whom might not otherwise have heeded the political campaigns at all.

Granted, we have The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, for those of us who strive to fulfill our civic duty by being well-informed voters. The most accessible (if not the primary) news sources for far more prospective voters, however, are shows such as The Late Show With David Letterman and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and the presidential politicos, realizing the value of form over substance, seek to use humor as the newest political tool. If satirical presentations can inform us of political issues while titillating us, so much the better, but only if the electorate is aware that propagandistic humor is nothing to laugh off.

Bush, through much trial and error, has evolved the strategic use of self-referential witticisms to shape the issue under discussion. On his appearance last summer on the Late Show, he had explained to Letterman, who was recovering from quintuple bypass surgery, that his slogan “I’m a uniter, not a divider” meant that “when it comes time to sew up your chest cavity, we use stitches, as opposed to opening it up.” Bush learned from his failed attempts at humor, however, and now uses humor to effectively direct the course of a conversation.

On the candidate’s most recent appearance on Late Show, for example, Bush started off the banter by tapping the microphone, quipping,“I’m always checking these days.” He was referring to the incident six weeks ago where he was caught on an unexpectedly live mic labelling a New York Times journalist a certain orifice (the letters of which can be rearranged to spell “ash sole”). Bush’s clever one-liner prompted Letterman to ask if Bush felt an apology to the reporter was in order. “Not really,” Bush replied, and followed with an explanation of his grievances with the press to a now-attentive audience.

While this exchange showed how humor can effectively lead to anesthetization while keeping the audience entertained, the astute late-night TV audience must also watch out for the use of self-mockery to deflect criticisms. If a lapse comes out as a facetious joke, we are sometimes less inclined to ask critical questions. #7 of “Top 10 Changes Bush Would Make in the White House” was to “make sure the White House library has lots of books with big print and pictures.” The nature of the joke implies that Bush’s literacy is a trivial, if not moot, issue, and voters no longer consider the consequences of having a President unable to recall the last book he read to completion. Bush thus scores a political point with this maneuver.

In an Saturday Night Live sketch to be aired as part of “Presidential Bash 2000,” Bush, whose notorious mispronunciations and mistaken syntax have been extensively and hilariously cited, deadpans that he felt “ambilavent” when asked to introduce the show, because some things in the show “were, in a word, offensible.” In the same sketch, Gore continuously rolls his eyes and sighs heavily, parodying the offensive and childish behavior during the first presidential debate for which he has been sharply criticized. Here, too, the unwary viewer can easily become desensitized to actual faults of the candidates.

At a fundraiser, Gore disclaimed that he was an uptight policy wonk, saying that he enjoyed such leisurely pastimes as television. “One of my favorite shows is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” Gore stated, adding the scripted afterthought, “Well, it should really be called Who Wants to Be After Taxes a $651,430.70 Person?

Through self-deprecating humor, the presidential candidates acknowledge, and directly laugh off, what once were valid criticisms of their shortcomings and blunders. If humor draws us to politics and makes us aware of political happenings, that’s just peachy-keen. But if it distracts us from critically examining the real issues of contention, the humor is certainly no joke.