Celebrating the Long-Lost Art of Political Humor

The Al Smith dinner brings to mind the best traditions of political humor

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    NEWSLETTERS

    President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney poked gentle but sharp fun at one another Thursday night during an esteemed New York Catholic charity dinner that has long been a required stop for presidential candidates.

    Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were the stars of the annual Al Smith dinner. Every four years this dinner brings together the rival candidates for President of the United States -- and the writers on each campaign staff try to show how good they are.

             At Thursday night’s dinner, held for the benefit of Catholic charities, both candidates got in some good shots -- at each other and at themselves. The president noted that this was the third time that he had met Governor Romney recently.” As some of you may have noticed, I had a lot more energy in our second debate. I felt really well rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate.” 
            
    And the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, took on the press when he said: “They have their job to do and I have my job to do. My job is to lay out a positive vision for the future of the country, and their job is to make sure that no one else finds out about it.”
             
    The audience roared with laughter after each sally. It was American style humor, funny if a bit heavy-handed. But it made you appreciate the traditions that made this evening possible. Here were the two men vying to be the leader of the free world and they were mixing it up with barbs that were hardly respectful of each other. A distinctly American form of humor.
              
    I talked to political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Only a prince of the church, Cardinal Timothy Dolan,  could have pulled this off. The dinner, in a way, points up the great strength of American democracy. Here we had a black president and a Mormon challenger mixing it up before an establishment audience in New York and those who came contributed $5 million to Catholic charities to enjoy the duel.”
                       
    Sheinkopf said that “these confrontations come close to character assassination but it’s still part of the American political tradition.” The political consultant recalled that Thomas Jefferson had verbally assaulted John Adams and Alexander Hamilton in the early days of our nation. But, despite the barbs exchanged by these two candidates in 2012, at the end of their speeches, both  praised each other highly  as good family men and fathers. This, again, he said, is part of the American tradition.
                      
    It’s interesting to compare American political humor with the humor of our cousins, the British.  Sheinkopf thinks the British are more subtle. Thus, Gilbert and Sullivan, in their musical plays, condemned the hypocrisy of British government and society by creating characters who exhibited the most hypocritical traits.
                        
    Take the pompous military man in Pirates of Penzance. “I am the very model of a modern major general. I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral…” Or, in The Mikado, the Lord High Executioner who said : “I’ve got a little list; I’ve got a little list -- of society offenders who might well be underground -- and who never would be missed.”
                           
    The theater goers in London knew whom Gilbert and Sullivan had in mind. Relatively speaking, this was subtle humor. But we Americans have different taste. We believe that, when it comes to politics, we pile on. Or we enjoy watching the candidates pile on each other. 
     

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