Washington — The interview with John Anderson was about to begin. "Could you say a few words," I asked, "and then we'll play this tape back just to be sure it's working." Anderson: "Sure. This is John Anderson talking with his mouth full -- which his dear old mother always told him he shouldn't do."
This incident is cited for the benefit of those who fault candidate Anderson for being, as they see it, so deadly serious all the time, for being almost grim.
For the next 40 minutes or so Mr. Anderson provided fresh, thoughtful answers to a whole array of questions -- never sounding as though he were reciting little memorized speeches the way some politicians do. This is a man who knows how to put his thoughts clearly into words. He'll probably never have to endure the embarrassment of a fumbling performance -- like the memorable Kennedy TV interview with Roger Mudd. And he'll be well equipped to handle himself creditably on the speaking circuit or in debate.
But the Anderson with the little quips and the dry humor isn't often on display. Thus, at the end of the interview, I felt compelled to say: "You sure are serious about all this, aren't you?" "I am, indeed," he said.
"Any humor anywhere?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," he said. "You should have heard the speech I just made. I tried to be humorous. I talked about the Baltimore Orioles. I talked about promising that the rain wouldn't fall while I was speaking. I kept my promise when the speech was over. I am not a humorless person."
Then Mr. Anderson spoke of his idol, Lincoln. "I wish I was the raconteur that he was. I think that humor is an absolute essential. You couldn't keep matters in perspective if you couldn't laugh at yourself."
Q: "You can laugh at yourself?"
A: "Oh, yes. Sometimes I look pretty ridiculous."
So it seems that while Mr. Anderson keeps it hidden from public view most of the time he does have a certain amount of what has been called that saving grace of humor. Maybe not too much. But, in response to criticism, he's making a special effort these days to let the voters know that he likes to laugh and joke a bit and that he can even poke fun at himself.
Sometimes presidents are indeed humorless, or almost so. Richard Nixon was. So was Lyndon Johnson. Nixon found some things funny. And Johnson could slap his leg over an earthy comment. But basically these men were without much humor.
John Kennedy's keen wit was always there, even or especially in moments of tension. Ford is no storyteller or wit -- but he laughs often and loud at situations and, at times, at himself. He also is a josher.
Franklin D. Roosevelt loved to laugh. My favorite memory of FDR was his head rolling as he rocked in laughter. Ted Kennedy enjoys banter. Ronald Reagan is a storyteller. And Jimmy Carter is superb at making up and delivering one-liners.
Adlai Stevenson's sense of humor was at first a great asset and then, as time went on, a political liability. He simply joked too much. A Stevenson joke was usually applicable, fresh, beautifully delivered, and funny. But many voters began to feel that he was more of a comedian than a person they could see as leader of their country. And he went on to lose to a man with a big smile who expressed good humor but not too much humor -- Eisenhower.
Eisenhower as President would sometimes joke. But he made it clear to those around him that it was his -- not their -- prerogative to move a serious conversation in a light direction. He didn't suffer fools gladly. Nor would he suffer gladly those who would try to say something funny if he himself hadn't indicated it was appropriate to laugh a bit.
Eugene McCarthy in his earlier days, when he was in Congress, may have been the funniest man who ever sought or held public office. That was before he became somewhat bitter -- and before his humor began to take on a cutting edge.
The voters could laugh uproariously at McCarthy's wit and still elect him to the House of Representatives. But the droll Minnesotan found he had to soft-pedal his humor when he ran for the Senate. The voters had begun to pull away from him because they could not accept him as a serious candidate for the upper house.
A McCarthy with his humor still there -- but under wraps -- then went on to win a Senate seat.
The public seems to want its United States senators -- and its presidents -- to be in the main serious but, if possible, also to posses a good sense of humor. Anderson is mainly serious. And he's working on his sense of humor.