Working the Room: Do One Liners And Witty Retorts Make Us Feel Better About Our Politicians?
October 21, 2012
By all outward appearances, Abraham Lincoln was one of our least electable presidents. Tall and thin, with a long torso and big ears, his arms flailed when he spoke, and his voice was “not melodious,” but instead “shrill and piercing.” One friend said that “he provoked as much laughter by the grotesque expression of his homely face as by the abstract fun of his stories.” In the way he spoke, his carriage, his uncontrollable expressions, and his “shrill” voice, Lincoln was, according to modern TV-ready requirements, decidedly unpresidential. But what he lacked in physical appeal—it was an eleven-year-old girl who first suggested he grow a beard—he put right with words. Abraham Lincoln was funny.
Laced with a Southern accent, Lincoln’s stories and jokes reflected his rural, homespun education. According to Judge David Davis, Lincoln’s humor was:
In many respects unique, if not remarkable. His countenance and all his features seemed to take part in the performance. As he neared the pith or point of the joke or story, every vestige of seriousness disappeared from his face. His little gray eyes sparkled; a smile seemed to gather up, curtainlike, the corners of his mouth; his frame quivered with suppressed excitement; and when the point—or “nub” of the story, as he called it—came, no one’s laugh was heartier than his.In 1848, as a young representative from Illinois, Lincoln took the House floor in support of the Whig presidential candidate, Zachary Taylor. He mocked his Democratic opponents for not gathering behind a single candidate by telling a curious anecdote:
I have heard some things from New York, and if they are true, we might well say of your party there, as a drunken fellow once said when he heard the reading of an indictment for hog stealing. The clerk read on till he got to, and through the words, “did steal, take, and carry away, ten boars, ten sows, ten shoats, and ten pigs” at which he exclaimed, “Well, by golly, that is the most equally divided gang of hogs I ever did hear of.” If there is any gang of hogs more equally divided than the Democrats of New York are about this time, I have not heard of it.When Lincoln finished with a remark, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “He looks up at you with a great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs.”
Lincoln had an ear for entertaining, collecting anecdotes like the drunken hog-stealing tale and keeping them at the ready to make a point. “I remember a good story when I hear it,” he said, “but I never invented anything original. I am only a retail dealer.” We should perhaps take the comment as something of a dissemblance. It is difficult to imagine who else could have originated this snide remark in a letter to Gen. George B. McClellan, his eventual opponent in the 1864 election, when the general failed to advance against the Confederacy with the speed Lincoln would have liked: “If you don’t want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while.”
Although many of the jokes attributed to Lincoln are of questionable authenticity—when accused of lying he reportedly said, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” his public humor was well-recorded in his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas . Lincoln attacked Douglas’ position, which would have allowed each state to decide on the future of slavery, as an argument “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” Douglas later admitted that while he felt he was a match for Lincoln’s arguments, “there is one thing, however, of which I stand constantly in dread. When Lincoln begins to tell a story, I begin to get apprehensive. Every one of his stories seems like a whack upon my back—that is exactly the effect that the allegories and anecdotes, of which he is a master, have upon me.” Lincoln’s humor allowed him to connect with the audience in a way Douglas never could. Lincoln was a man of the people, and his humor reflected a shared experience. Douglas had reason to be wary—he had lost to Lincoln sixteen years earlier when they both courted Mary Todd—but Lincoln’s performance at the debates was not sufficient to stop Douglas’ reelection to the Senate. The national exposure, however, helped him win the White House two years later.
During his presidency, Lincoln suffered from depression, deepened by the deaths of his mother and older sister and by the Civil War. He tried to keep his darker moods out of public view, leading even his most dedicated supporters such as Richard Henry Dana to wonder, “Can this man Lincoln ever be serious?” When asked how he liked being president, Lincoln replied jokingly, and honestly, “You have heard the story, haven’t you, about the man who was tarred and feathered and carried out of town on a rail? A man in the crowd asked him how he liked it. His reply was that if it was not for the honor of the thing, he would much rather walk.”When he stood for reelection in 1864, theNew York Herald called the president “a joke incarnate. His election was a very sorry joke.” Political cartoons ridiculed him for greeting any situation, no matter how grave, with “that reminds me of story…” Critics said that he wasn’t serious enough to be president and that his presentation was too common, but as president, Abraham Lincoln had a remarkable ability to connect with people and to talk to them through his own humble experience. Always unpretentious, he used his humor to embrace his origins and turn them to a political advantage, saying, “I don’t know who my grandfather was, and I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.”
There is an academic field of humor studies, made up of scholars from across the arts and sciences, with entire journals and conferences and endless arguments about what makes a joke funny. In the fray, three theories of humor dominate. The superiority theory, favored by Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Hobbes, holds that we laugh at things that we feel are beneath us or grotesque—the joy we find in schadenfreude. The relief theory, favored by Sigmund Freud, argues that when there is a build up of nervous excitement or psychic energy, it must be released through laughter, tears, dreams, or physical action. Aristotle, Cicero, Immanuel Kant, and Arthur Schopenhauer were proponents of incongruity theory, which posits that we find amusement when an action differs from our expectations, but in a way that does not cause us harm. Think of Mel Brooks’ definition: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” These three theories overlap, are contradictory, and leave out a great deal. Yet, they can help explain part of the appeal of George W. Bush’s joke from the unveiling of his portrait at the White House. He said to President Obama, “When you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask, What would George do?”
It is not enough for politicians to amuse; they must also persuade, for their benefit and ours. Gorgias, a fifth-century-BC Greek philosopher and rhetorician, urged orators to “destroy one’s adversaries’ seriousness with laughter, and their laughter with seriousness.” Aristotle treated humor briefly in The Rhetoric; he quoted Gorgias’ advice and also warned that “mockery is more gentlemanly than buffoonery; for the mocker makes a joke for his own amusement, the buffoon for the amusement of others.” Cicero in On the Oratoridentified the strategic value of humor as securing goodwill, demonstrating cleverness, and attacking an opponent. In his Education of the Orator, Quintilian recognized that humor could be used to relieve tension, divert attention, refresh the audience, and deflect criticism. He also argued that Demosthenes simply lacked a sense of humor and that Cicero joked too much. The ancient orators’ contemporary political counterparts on this account might be the dour Richard Nixon (“Sock it to me?”) and the inveterate joker, Lincoln.
Humor and rhetoric are inextricably linked to democracy in its most ancient form. But in a democratic system with an electorate, juries, senates, representatives, legislatures, and executives, the subtleties of persuasion are both the game and the field on which it is played. Our leaders must be able to withstand ridicule and use it as a weapon. As much as the powerful seem distant from their public, politicians must still face the people for their vote. Humor is a shortcut to identification and connection, humanizing bureaucracy and circumventing reason. If we laugh at the same joke, it is likely that we may share other sensibilities. If politicians can make us laugh, we can spin a fantasy that they’ll also govern in a way we like.
Rhetorical humor is persuasion with a wink. It lets the citizens in on the political performance. The connection that we feel with a politician through their rhetoric is, of course, an illusion, but our amusement makes us accepting of that. Unlike a frontal assault of facts and evidence, a political joke can feel more like a shared secret. It is much easier for the audience to remember, and repeat, a pithy phrase or a humorous line than a well-reasoned but poorly stylized argument. A joke pushes past our rational defenses and gets at our instincts, persuading where facts fail. The laughter that accompanies humor forces us to lose control of our bodies and our reason, to suddenly like a candidate we’ve been conditioned to hate, even just for a moment. Two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson said, “I would hate to think that humor is, in the long run, more effective than reason, but it certainly is more arresting than reason.”…