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Tom Purcell

Tom Purcell: Effective wit a dying art in politics

| Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, 8:33 p.m.

Among today’s most regrettable trends is the dying art of effective humor and satire in politics.

During 1984’s second debate between President Reagan and Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, moderators rightfully asked Reagan, then 73, if he had enough stamina to carry out his duties.

Reagan answered, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Nearly everyone, even Mondale, laughed. Reagan’s humor reassured America that he had his wits about him. He defeated Mondale in a landslide.

Humor, well executed, is a powerful thing.

A well-designed joke can cut to the heart of the matter better than any speech or law or government policy — slicing through political divisions and uplifting and uniting us like no other form of communication.

The art of political humor is faring poorly of late. No longer are we seeing the stylish political barb.

President Lincoln, possibly the best-spoken American politician ever, cut one opponent to the quick by saying, “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas better than any man I ever met.”

In 1985, Jack Kemp, seeking to brand his political opponent as ill-informed and unfit for the highest office, said, “In a recent fire Bob Dole’s library burned down. Both books were lost. And he hadn’t even finished coloring one of them.”

During her 1998 Democratic National Convention keynote address, then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards, trying to discredit Republican candidate George H.W. Bush by highlighting his upper-crust upbringing and tendency for political gaffes, said, “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Now, the blunt insult has replaced the stylish political barb.

“Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crazy Bernie” are among President Trump’s nicknames for his opponents. Though his supporters welcome his boldness against his political foes, it alienates independents and those who do oppose his policies.

Trump has the world’s largest platform. His choice of words sets the tone of “humor” in the country more than anyone else’s.

Regrettably, our professional comedians and humorists are following suit.

During less partisan times, libertarian humorist P.J. O’Rourke said, “The Democrats are the party of government activism, the party that says government can make you richer, smarter, taller, and get the chickweed out of your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then get elected and prove it.”

O’Rourke’s “light-touch” humor clearly illustrates that Democrats vs. Republicans isn’t the challenge. It’s us vs. our politicians, and we must get past partisan silliness to keep them honest.

In contrast to O’Rourke, too many of our late-night comedians have gone hyper-partisan. They use their platforms to self-righteously mock Americans who think differently than they do about politics — which further widens our divisions.

“As Americans, we must ask ourselves: Are we really so different?” says humorist Dave Barry. “Must we stereotype those who disagree with us? Do we truly believe that ALL red-state residents are ignorant, racist, fascist, knuckle-dragging, NASCAR-obsessed, cousin-marrying, roadkill-eating, tobacco juice-dribbling, gun-fondling, religious fanatic rednecks; or that ALL blue-state residents are godless, unpatriotic, pierced-nose, Volvo-driving, France-loving, left-wing communist, latte-sucking, tofu-chomping, holistic-wacko, neurotic, vegan, weenie perverts?”

The answer is that most of us do not. The trick is to get our politicians and comedians to embrace this truth and restore the art of effective humor and satire in politics.

Freelance writer Tom Purcell of Library is author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Visit him on the web at TomPurcell.com.

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