Columns » Jay Barth

No laughing matter

All three of the speakers at Sunday's memorial service for former Gov. and Sen. Dale Bumpers in Little Rock highlighted Bumpers' humor as a key to his political success.


CLINTON AND PRYOR: At Bumpers' funeral.
  • CLINTON AND PRYOR: At Bumpers' funeral.

All three of the speakers at Sunday's memorial service for former Gov. and Sen. Dale Bumpers in Little Rock highlighted Bumpers' humor as a key to his political success. Veteran journalist and Arkansas Times columnist Ernest Dumas credited Bumpers' humor (along with an authenticity Dumas called "magical sincerity" and unquestioned public integrity) with his rise and sustained electoral success. From edgy one-liners to long stem-winders, David Pryor regenerated the Bumpers wit and, like Dumas, cited its role in his longtime colleague's ongoing connection with Arkansas voters. Meanwhile, former President Clinton — who pulled out a page of punch lines, a trick for incorporating jokes into political speeches he learned from Bumpers, as a prop — made the case that Bumpers used laughter as a means to prepare his constituents to hear those things that they needed to hear. "He used humor so the people would listen to him, so he could impart information," Clinton emphasized on Sunday.

Listening to that series of (very funny) speeches making the strong case for humor's centrality to the Bumpers political magic makes one realize just how rare genuine wit is among contemporary politicians. Part of the demise of humor connects, of course, to the rise of a decidedly more controlled media politics and the diminishment of retail politics that required candidates to interact with voters nonstop. Moreover, the best humor is spontaneous and very little unscripted occurs in a modern politics where any verbal miscue can quickly go viral to the detriment of a candidate. Thus, politicians and their handlers feel that it is better to be safe and avoid deviations from those programmatic scripts.

Some of the best political humor also incorporates self-deprecation; candidates fear that any such admission of weakness (even with tongue firmly planted in cheek) can be used as an attack in a polarized political environment. An irony of this being a humorless era for American politicians is that recent years have been a true high point in political satire with talents like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver consistently putting their gifts on display; indeed, some of those comics' best work has centered on politicians taking themselves way too seriously.

While recent Arkansas politicians have often shown the ability to deliver a good line or two, former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is the sole consistently funny politician in recent years; it was what made him the standout political talent of his generation. But, the demise of political humor is, of course, not just an Arkansas phenomenon (although its absence here is more noticeable because of the long-standing tradition of genuinely funny politicians and public officials). President Obama has good timing in delivering a witty script (including at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner) and has a genuinely funny snarkiness ("you're likable enough, Hillary") that resonates with his fans and annoys his political enemies, but humor is not a core component of his appeal.

Of the innumerable candidates now running for president, only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee regularly incorporates humor into his political rhetoric (though Huckabee's "zingers" are often more groan-worthy than genuinely funny). Early in her campaign, those around Hillary Clinton emphasized that she would incorporate more warmth and humor into her 2016 campaign; months later, there has been no real evidence of an effective inclusion of humor into her public persona. (As an aside, analysts of political humor have noted the particular challenges facing women — traditionally struggling to be taken seriously in a man's game — when it comes to using humor on the campaign stump, with the glaring and glorious exception of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.)

The tradition of humor in politics (particularly in the South) had a clear downside. It was one factor that caused politics to often be seen more as entertainment than as an effective mode of social change. However, as was expressed so artfully during Sunday's memorial for Bumpers, political humor could be an instrument for moving citizens to new ways of thinking and to action. As Clinton put it in his analysis, "Humor should open our minds and our hearts."

It remains a matter of debate whether the absence of genuine political humor is a symptom or a cause of this caustic electoral environment. The former president suggested the latter, noting that absence of the good will that results from good humor is one reason for the depth of anger present in the American electorate at present. His worrisome summation in eulogizing the great loss of Dale Bumpers' purposeful humor: "We're all mad and mad people make bad decisions." Those few worrisome words are the best description of 2016-style politics that I've heard to date.


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