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Opinion

And the winner is ... the funnier candidate

Lincoln used humor. So did JFK. Today's contenders should follow suit.

By Ben Shapiro / January 16, 2008



Los Angeles

Abraham Lincoln loved a good joke. During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Stephen Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced. "I leave it to you," Lincoln replied, "If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?" Each one of Lincoln's jokes, Douglas complained, "seems like a whack upon my back."

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Lincoln didn't use humor merely to carve up political opponents; he used it as a self-preservation mechanism. "If I didn't laugh, I should die," the Great Emancipator once explained. Lincoln used humor to get elected president, and he used humor to help guide America through the greatest crisis in its history.

Politics is a game of imagemaking, and demonstrating a sense of humor is a key element. When we vote, we judge candidates as people, not as bundles of positions. And the most likable people – and most successful leaders – are those who can keep us feeling good, even when times are tough.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's humor and jaunty optimism kept America moving forward through the Great Depression; Jimmy Carter's sourness depressed Americans through recession. Given the choice, Americans have elected the candidate with the better sense of humor: Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter; Mr. Reagan over Walter Mondale; George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis; Bill Clinton over Mr. Bush; Mr. Clinton over Bob Dole; George W. Bush over Al Gore; President Bush over John Kerry. It is no wonder John F. Kennedy had his team of speechwriters supply him with jokes during his 1960 presidential run.

Yet today's candidates are almost uniformly humorless. Among the Democrats, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is deadly serious, which contributes to widespread perceptions of her churlishness. For many people, her seemingly scripted cackling during Sunday morning talk shows in September only confirmed her calculated coldness.

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