"His Majesty knew that a joke is a dangerous form of opposition."
-- Ryszard Kapuscinski, "The Emperor"
A joke is never just a joke, and in politics this is doubly true. It is a force to make tyrannies quiver, campaign aides reach for Rolaids and front-runners lose sleep. Look now to the long-awaited first television ad by the current Republican golden boy, the pastor-Gov. Michael Dale Huckabee, who is ascendant in Iowa.
Here is a serious candidate running for the most powerful post in the world -- on the strength of Chuck Norris' facial hair. "There is no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard -- only another fist," Huckabee quips. "When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he isn't lifting himself up. He is pushing the earth down." And it's damn funny. And it makes sound political sense. And here's why: Most American voters care about politics, but they can't stand the politicians or the politicking. They know how to spot a phony. At the same time, they are bored stiff. In a recent Pew poll, 55 percent of America said the presidential campaign was "dull," compared to 37 percent who found it "interesting"; two-thirds found the campaign was too long. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to be bored and exhausted.
Humor cures both ills. After the attacks of Sept. 11, many in the pundit class predicted the end of irony, but the joke was on them. In the modern political debate, the humorist reigns supreme. Exhibit A, of course, is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who can deliver the hard facts of reality in a way that drops the pretension that politics is a serious matter that must be treated like a bris. They call out the BS when they see it, and instantly become more credible.
Huckabee is doing the same thing in this ad. He has taken on the sacred cow of the Republican Party, the ridiculous claim to tough guy, big daddy machismo. Huckabee is calling this hooey out for what it is -- a disguise that is about as useful to the nation as the beard on Chuck Norris. He does the unthinkable. He states the obvious, calls a phony a phony. And in the process, he suddenly establishes himself as a straight-talker, as the honest broker, as the candidate equivalent of Jon Stewart. You may not know enough to vote for him -- comedians like Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor would have made bad presidents -- but you want to know more. Who is this guy? What's he all about?
Humor also disarms the opposition. There is no easy answer to the ironist. After the ad came out, the current Republican king of macho swagger, Fred Thompson, released a statement through his spokesman, containing conventional attacks. "Huckabee's position on immigration is closer to Ted Kennedy than to conservatives," the spokesman announced. But it was no match for Huckabee's sarcasm. In this war of words, Thompson comes off as even more of a phony, a candidate claiming to be Chuck Norris in a world where even Chuck admits he is a clown.
Incidentally, this is not the first time Huckabee has tried to gain credibility from the Comedy Central vibe. Here is an online video posted by the campaign last month.