An American politician can help himself or herself politically by being able to believably use self-deprecating humor, which sends a clear message: "I am not pompously self-important or thin-skinned; I do not take myself completely seriously."
No one was better at self-deprecation than former President Ronald Reagan, whose robust sense of self-confidence enabled him to confound his political opponents by laughing at himself.
Washington, sadly, can be a city where, because we do not grow corn or build cars, we sometimes measure input rather than output. I may not be able to tell you exactly what I did yesterday in concrete terms, but instead, I can tell you how long I didn't do it. My explanation goes something like this: "I got to my desk before 7:30 a.m. and did not leave until almost 8 p.m." Compare this to, "President Reagan, by refusing to arrive at his office before breakfast and rarely remaining there after 4:30 p.m., offended the Puritans in the press who questioned whether the then-oldest elected president was really 'up' to the demands of the office. At a press dinner, Reagan routed his critics with one simple line: 'It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figured why take the chance?'"
As proof that Gipper's one-liners were not all written by joke writers and he simply expertly delivered, I recall an exchange from the 1980 campaign with a wire-service reporter when then-candidate Reagan's critics regularly disparaged his career in Hollywood. The reporter had located an old promotional glossy photo of Reagan and one of his co-stars, a chimpanzee named Bonzo. With good nature, Reagan signed the photo and added, "I'm the one with the wristwatch."
Nor was Reagan the only major Republican who could make fun of himself. GOP White House nominee John McCain, having agreed with the description of him as an "American hero" and "an incredibly self-effacing guy," recalled what had motivated him to become the leading Republican advocate of campaign finance reform: "As I was lying there in my prison cell in Hanoi having my legs broken by interrogators, one thought and one thought alone kept me going -- that someday I would come home and do something about soft money PACs." How had McCain become a prisoner of war? "I was able to intercept a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane."
As the Republican nominee in 2012, Sen. Mitt Romney faced the thorny political issue of same-sex marriage, which many in his party vehemently opposed, and explained his own position this way: "As a Mormon, I believe marriage is between a man and a woman ... and a woman ... and a woman ... and a woman." Acknowledging his own often fractured syntax and verbal gaffes, former President George W. Bush quoted approvingly a tough line from Garrison Keillor: "George Bush's lips are where words go to die."
One major Republican leader has never had either the comfort level or the self-confidence to make fun of himself through self-deprecating humor. Denigrating public persons with whom you disagree as "loser" or "crooked" or "failing" or "low-IQ" or "crazy" is ridicule. It is not humor, and it is not appealing. Perhaps President Donald Trump's inability to ever laugh at himself or to admit a flaw or a mistake explains why Reagan, McCain, Bush and Romney are all more favorably regarded by American voters today than is President Donald J. Trump.
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