Generally speaking, Washington people aren’t funny. They try and try, but their comic timing isn’t good, and their subjects are unpromising. Jon Stewart can wring a joke out of cap-and-trade legislation. Senators and cabinet secretaries should leave that sort of thing to the pros.
Decoder was reminded of this the other day when listening to Attorney General Eric Holder banter with Sen. Barbara Mikulski. The occasion was a hearing. Mr. Holder had just wished Sen. Richard Shelby a happy birthday.
“I didn’t know that! You really are a good detective,” said Senator Mikulski.
“Well, the FBI works for me,” said Holder, flexing his wit.
The audience laughed. Uneasily. Sure, Holder may be a great lawyer, but does he remember that J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI to probe people’s personal lives?
Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner controls the Internal Revenue Service. But you don’t hear him tweaking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about her charitable deductions. In public, anyway.
Now, humor does occur in D.C. But typically it falls into one of two categories:
2. Consultant-provided. Pros write lines, and Washingtonians deliver them. For instance, some of Bill Clinton’s jokes for special occasions were provided by politico/former ad man Mark Katz. Mr. Katz now runs a consultancy devoted to writing jokes for powerful people.
One reason your typical elected (or appointed) official can’t crack wise is that humor is dangerous. One person’s joke is another’s outrage, and in politics it does not take much controversy for a trap door to open and end a career.
Earl Butz, secretary of Agriculture for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, once told a very, very bad joke in a private setting. But the joke got out, and it was so bad, with racist and misogynist overtones, that Butz was forced to resign. He never served in public office again.
Plus, comedy is often the tool of the outsider, the person who sees and mocks the contradictions and connections that insiders accept, or miss. But Washington is a city full of people who were insiders from grade school on. Was Lenny Bruce ever a student body president? We think not. It is true, though, that Johnny Carson went to college with Ted Sorensen, John Kennedy’s wordsmith.
What’s that, you say? “Three words: Senator Al Franken.”
Well, that’s not settled yet. But if he prevails in his Senate seat bid, think of the entertainment possibilities. Maybe they’ll make him chairman of a new Senate Committee on Irony Reform.