The high risk of political jokes

In the ongoing debate between doodlers and scribblers we have always maintained that a word is worth a thousand pictures. This just happens to be one scribbler's objective and enlightened opinion. We think you would admire the dignity with which we ignore the sneering doodlers who ask: ''Which word?''

But our statesmanlike composure crumbled to pieces the other day when we read that Richard Wirthlin, who takes public opinion polls for President Reagan, believes the power of a cartoon outwallops an editorial comment ''by about 100 to one.''

You can imagine what that did to our sense of pride, not to mention our job security.

Mr. Wirthlin is talking specifically about the power of humor. Those cartoons of President Ford stumbling and President Carter fighting off a killer rabbit did terrible things to their ''image,'' our pollster deduces. He is concerned that President Reagan's decline in the popularity ratings will signal to all the would-be wits an open season for satire. Rich Little's album, ''The First Family Rides Again,'' is selling just a bit too briskly to please the White House.

Could Mr. Wirthlin be overreacting to the alleged barbaric hordes of cartoonists and impressionists? The sight gags are not exactly popping yet. As for the scribblers - denied the little dip of the head and the twinkle available to the Reagan doodler - what can a poor ''100-to-one'' wordsmith do except ring changes on ''We-l-l-l . . .''?

We-l-l-l, for one thing, a scribbler could get down to the issues in a way a doodler cannot. The trouble is, it's pretty hard to be funny, for instance, on the subject of nuclear warfare. It was funny, in the year 1900, for Finley Peter Dunne to write in the voice of Mr. Dooley: ''I can see in me mind th' day whin explosives'll be so explosive, an' guns'll shoot so far, that on'y th' folks that stays at home'll be kilt.''

That wild flight of fantasy is too close to today's facts to make anybody laugh -- like Dunne's answer to the question about two quarreling nations of the past: ''D'ye think they'll have a war?''

''They won't if they're not afraid iv each other. But ye can't tell what a proud nation will do whin it's scared to death.''

With $454.8 billion projected for defense, who's giggling?

Dunne's summary of American foreign policy toward the third world of 80 years ago may also strike a familiar chord: ''We import juke, hemp, cigar wrappers, sugar, an' fairy tales fr'm th' Ph'lippeens, an' export six-inch shells an' th' like.''

But once again, as the stakes have increased, laughter seems riskier too - a choking sound in a dry throat.

Indeed megaton bombs may have sobered up our comedians more than our politicians. Ordinary citizens are afraid of blowing up the world with a sneeze, or a laugh.

If it's any comfort to Mr. Wirthlin, the joker's rules of the game are more polite toward public officials than they were at the turn of the century. In his book ''Mr. Dooley and Mr. Dunne,'' Edward J. Bander quotes the critic Henry S. Canby as saying that quite a few of Dunne's pieces ''could not have been published in any year since 1916 without landing the author in court or jail.''

Yet public figures complained less for being savaged more. After a Dunne drubbing, Theodore Roosevelt wrote Henry Cabot Lodge about his sendup: ''It is really exceedingly bright. How he does get at any joint in the harness!''

The Dunnes and their well-skewered targets appear to have actually believed that roughing up an incumbent was the way one showed respect for the office.

How innocent, how tolerant Americans must have been then, when a scribbler could make today's cartoonists look like softies -- and still be praised by his victims!

The latest phase, of course, is that journalists are now getting sensitive because President Reagan is getting sensitive about them.

On this matter, too, Dunne had the last word. ''In pollyticks,'' he wrote, ''th' worst men ar-re often libeled, so what can th' best expect? It's a good thing too, f'r it keeps sinsitive an' thin-skinned men out iv public life an' dhrives thim into journalism.''

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