Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Obama's Humor

Over the last 50 years there is one thing that has united all Americans, regardless of political persuasion, social views, or class status. We like funny presidents. It's not impossible but it's very hard for a national figure to last in America without a sense of humor. Thanks in large part to the age of TV politics, our presidents must be tolerably good-looking (but not gorgeous), have gravitas (without being overbearing), seem informed (but not a nerd), and be able to tell jokes.

Comedic timing wins us over. When an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at then President George Bush, he quickly quipped "I could see into that man's sole" which was both a reference to his infamously incorrect assessment of Vladimir Putin's belief in democracy and defused a tense situation caused by the chaos, corruption, torture, and terrorism unleashed by the Iraq war. There are very different types of humor, some of which I don't understand. But people need to feel some sense of comfort, ease with others, and softness.

Humor is a great balm against defeats, setbacks, and the inevitable slides. When Ronald Reagan was beaten by President Ford in the 1976 GOP primary, it was his grace and humor that saved him. Reagan's folksy charm and ability to make fun of himself set up his next run in 1980. When a young Arkansas governor gave the worst speech of his life at the 1988 Democratic Convention, many thought it was the end of his career. Bill Clinton dealt with the setback with acknowledgment and comedy, making fun of his long-winded, wonky speech patterns. Clinton licked his wounds all the way back to Little Rock, shortened his speech patterns, and learned to throw in a few jokes. In the middle of challenging 1992 primary when he was being dogged on all sides by scandals, allegations, and his campaign was sinking, Clinton could still be found braving the cold New Hampshire nights, shaking hands and endearing himself to the proverbial thick-skinned granite state residents.

I remember watching C-SPAN (yes I was a political wonk as a child) broadcast a regular stump speech Clinton was giving a excited crowd while storm clouds gathered over head. Clinton was hitting his stride, the applause lines were getting cheered, but you could tell that this was an old speech he was tired of giving. Thunder erupted overhead, interrupting the applause. Without missing a beat in his delivery, Clinton announced 'now before you drown, I want to tell you-' and the audience burst into peals of laughter. To this day I have no idea what Clinton's last point was or how he ended the rally. I remember that joke.

At the time I didn't know much about the Arkansas governor with a ruddy face, raspy voice, and traveling dirt storm of scandals. But my instant sense was that this was a man who was very smart, very tired, and still managing to slip in a gag line about the approaching storm. I had never seen that pliable humorous side to the much-lauded Paul "I am not Santa Claus" Tsongas. When Clinton took almost all of Tsongas's economic plan and slapped his name on it, the esteemed Senator went after Clinton and slammed him in the debates. Even though he was completely correct in his charges, Tsongas came across as brittle, dry, rigid, and a nerd whining about someone trying to steal answers from his test. Clinton turned his economic forgery into a joke, smile, and a wink. His seductive smile at the audience while being attacked siad 'I'm a rascal, but at least I'm fun.'

One startling commentators don't make about presidential elections: the un-funny guy almost always loses. Examining the losing candidates in the TV age reads like a list of the overly serious, boring, humorless, and stiff.

John Kennedy's Harvard charm over Richard Nixon's self-loathing. Lyndon Johnson's Texas good ol' boy backslapping over the rhetorical straitjacket of Goldwater. Nixon was made funny only in comparison to his utterly hopeless challengers. Carter's peanut farm wit over the stiff Ford. Reagan's avuncular demeanor trumps Carter and Mondale. Dukakis's fascination with mushrooms makes George Bush Sr seem like an Apollo comedian. Clinton beats Bush. Then Bush Jr. beats Gore. And finally Obama easily surpasses the cranky McCain.

Barack Obama's humor is perhaps his greatest strength. Obama's biography reads like the archetype of the noble, but singular Black person in high positions. He's used to being on the only Black guy in the room. It goes without saying that there has never been a president who has had to do more to make people feel comfortable about him on a daily basis. He serves as an important case study for any minority or 'other' who finds themselves playing the ambassador.

There are times when I watch Obama and I want to scream: come on! Get angry! Throw something! His coolness can infuriate me. But behind his professorial detachment is a dry, sardonic wit. His 2011 White House Correspondence dinner speech trumped the hired comedian, Jay Leno. The next day, the media reports expressed surprise at how funny Obama was at the dinner. We now know that he was also overseeing the special ops high-risk raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound that same day he was joking about his birth certificate, deriding Donald Trump, slamming Leno for kicking Conan O'Brien off NBC, and Matt Damon for his performance in "The Adjustment Bureau." Yet it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that Obama can be glib, charming, sarcastic; often in the same sentence while keeping a cool poker face that doesn't betray a hint of worry.

When I was working on the Obama campaign in 2008, the staff had a problem with the Cleveland police. They were getting harassed by patrolmen. When the office opened and the staffers went to pick up the campaign van, the police pulled the vehicle over and confiscated when it was only a few minutes into its maiden voyage. The stories of police harassment became the stuff of folklore around the office. Rather than outrage, most people were tickled by the idea that they were doing something so important that it would attract what seemed like a concerted effort of law enforcement.

One night after another long day at the campaign office I was checking out at 2 am. I agreed to drive a fellow worker home so he wouldn't have to wait for the bus. As I drove out of the parking lot I noticed a car was trailing us. I made my way down the backstreets of Cleveland and became aware that it was a patrol car. My initial thought was 'nooo! Not tonight. It's 2 am.' The sirens started and the lights flashed. We were in a dark stretch of roads, covered by dense foliage. I drove a few hundred yards until I found a well-lit area and pulled over. I rolled the electronic windows down, took the keys out, aplaced my hands on the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. I know the drill and didn't intend on getting an errant bullet for trying to grab my wallet. The officer and he asked 'why didn't you stop when I signaled?'

"I wanted to pull over into a well-lit area."

"You stop when I tell you to stop!"

I looked up at him for the first time. He was very young, no older than 25, white cop riding solo. His screaming didn't show power, but his worry and concern at pulling over a car with two passengers by himself at 2 am. Right then and there I became aware of his side of things. His fears, the bravado it took to walk up to a car at night, not knowing what or who is in it. Fortunately he had me and I had him.

I smiled confidently and handed him my license without saying a word. My passenger, a Black man, turned to the officer with rage.

"Is there a problem officer? What did we do?"

I shot my passenger a smiling 'shut the fuck up' glare and quickly returned my eyes to the young officer. He went to his car to run my identification.

While we were waiting, the two of us -both Black men- had a heated discussion. My passenger was from Trenton, New Jersey. He grew up around police brutality, had been harassed, unfairly handcuffed and humilitated. He couldn't understand my cool handling of the situation. I explained to him that I was and still am a Buddhist and a pacifist. I believe in karma and that everything happens for a reason. I explained to him what that young officer might be thinking every time he pull someone over, regardless of race. The fear, the anxiety, maybe he thinks of his wife and wonders if this is the last traffic stop. He is without a partner. It is 2 am, we are in a dangerous neighborhood with a high-rate of crime. In short we three men find ourselves on this dark road. And all of us just want to get home. We are doing the best we can. Furthermore I react with innocence because I have not done anything except to drive home as a law-abiding citizen exercising his constitutional rights of participating in an election. In fact, it is this officer's job to protect me. It is his job to make sure I get home safe, and I expect him to do that. If there is anything that comes up, then I purify and rejoice.

This is an excellent opportunity to practice my 6 perfections: giving, morality, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom. We are practicing all of them right now in having this conversation. There are no accidents. We are learning. My passenger looked at me skeptically with a look that said 'yeah, we'll see negro!'

I cracked a joke about the police and about how we wouldn't have to go to work if we went to jail. Maybe we'd be able to sleep until 9. We started laughing. To myself, I did my mantras and mental purification.

When the officer returned, he was a completely different person. He was smiling, friendly, and moseyed up to our car with a sense of relief. He handed me my license back and claimed that my lights were too dim. They weren't but I went along with it, seeing that he needed some reason to save face. I allowed him to show me how to increase the lights on the rented car. I thanked him. He was smiling, I was smiling. My passenger looked like he was seeing a mircacle. We would all get to go home one more night.

As we pulled away, my passenger turned to me and exclaimed 'THAT. WAS. AMAZING." I thanked him for offering me a lesson by letting me drive him home. This was a very important night. We take for granted the miracle of safety, going home to our families, being Black in America. Tonight, we were grateful.

I think Obama's humor rubbed off on his national staff and trickled down on every level. I have never worked on a campaign where people dealt with continued adversity with aplomb and an almost British stiff-upper lip wit. These were Blacks, Whites, Indians, Latinos, married husbands, single mothers, gays, lesbians, rich New Yorkers who flew in, local who lived in squalor. There was this lightness and grace. What's even more shocking is that I never heard one person say a nasty thing about John McCain or the Republican party. These people were too busy working for change. I happily drove my co-workers home, ran errands with them, dined at Korean restaurants, engaged in vigorous political debates, and laughed.

The lightness of humor is a miracle. It is often forgotten but never lost. Obama's humor is that of Reagan, Clinton, and all enduring leaders. We can take encouragement that we all have this warm light of humanity. Humor is a gift.

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