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."
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.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is too busy playing demagogue to stoop to wisecracks. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois consistently emits a vibe of resolute optimism, but his unmitigated earnestness undermines his common-man appeal. The best Senator Obama could do in his November appearance on Saturday Night Live was play himself – and he simply wasn't very funny.
On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney acts like a well-heeled businessman, mistaking boringness for gravitas. Sen. John McCain of Arizona plays the angry old man – his humor is often mean-spirited rather than likable. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani shows flashes of funniness, but his campaign has become more serious as his poll numbers have plummeted.
Only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, buoyed by his shocking leap to the top of the Republican heap, exhibits charm and wit. Governor Huckabee's appearance on Jay Leno's late-night talk show was a triumph of likability.
What happened to humor in this election? The deep partisan divide that has torn America apart over the last eight years has largely taken humor off the table. We can't joke about the war in Iraq. One-liners about social issues are too raw for broad appeal. No presidential candidate will touch racial issues.
Where, then, should candidates look for humor? The economy.
The first candidate to level humor at the current economic situation could reap substantial dividends. Americans love jokes about money. In 1960, JFK wittily excoriated the Eisenhower economy: "Every bright spot the White House finds in the economy is like the policeman bending over the body in the alley who says cheerfully, 'Two of his wounds are fatal – but the other one's not so bad.' "
In 1980, Reagan won laughs and votes when he stated, "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."
In 1992, Clinton scored points in Georgia when he remarked that handing over the economy to George H.W. Bush was like "hiring General Sherman for fire commissioner."
This election, we are told repeatedly, is about change. The last eight years have been devoid of laughs. Americans are aching for a change on that front. The candidate who shows an authentic sense of humor – not stilted jokes or fake belly laughter – just might find a groundswell of support.
During the 1960 presidential race, JFK's father, Joseph, told him to "get yourself plenty of laughs … keep smiling whenever you take a crack."
Today's candidates would be well advised to do the same.