These candidates can't take a joke: Inside the baffling humorlessness of presidential politics

Self-deprecating humor used to be an invaluable tool for connecting with voters. Now? Not so much.


Published August 25, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Brian Snyder/AP/Rainier Ehrhardt/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Brian Snyder/AP/Rainier Ehrhardt/Photo montage by Salon)

“By he way, you may have seen that I have recently launched a Snapchat account,” Hillary Clinton told Iowans last month. “I love it—those messages disappear instantly, all by themselves.”

The joke was on herself, of course, referring to the much-criticized private email account she used as Secretary of State. Since the dawn of the television era, our most skilled politicians have deflected attacks by making wisecracks at their own expense.

But self-deprecating humor is in short supply on the 2016 campaign trail, where the candidates have mostly fired their one-liners at each other. A typical example: citing recent news reports about cyberattacks , Republican candidate Scott Walker said that Russia and China now know more about Clinton’s email server than do members of the U.S. Congress.

For both parties, of course, the easiest target is Donald Trump. “Finally, a candidate whose hair gets more attention than mine,” Clinton jibed. After Trump visited Iowa in his private helicopter, Bernie Sanders joked that he had left his own chopper at home.

These kinds of quips might draw a few chuckles from from a campaign crowd, but they won’t humanize candidates—or disarm their opposition. To do that, you need to poke fun at yourself.

Consider the master of the genre, John F. Kennedy. When he ran for president in 1960, JFK faced three big negatives: his family wealth, his Catholic religion, and his young age. So he made jokes about all three, which defused them better than any other retort could.

“I just received a telegram from my father,” Kennedy told a campaign audience. “He says, ‘Don’t buy one more vote than you need. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for a landslide.”

To deflect fears that he’d take orders from the Vatican, Kennedy joked that the Pope had misspelled American cardinal Francis Spellman’s name. And when Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn suggested that JFK might be too young to be president, Kennedy replied, “Sam Rayburn may think I’m young, but then most of the population looks young to a man who’s 78.”

The other president who excelled in self-deprecating humor was Ronald Reagan, who poked fun at his old age rather than his youth. He often quoted Thomas Jefferson’s claim that a person’s age shouldn’t be a barrier to public office. Then, after a pause, Reagan would add, “And when Tom told me that . . .”

Reagan’s most famous quip came during a 1984 debate against his Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale. Noting that JFK had gone for days without sleep during the Cuban missile crisis, a reporter asked Reagan—who was already the oldest president in American history—whether he “would be able to function in such circumstances.”

Reagan smiled, then replied. “I want you to know that I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Reagan’s staff had obviously anticipated the question and had prepared a snappy reply, courtesy of the jokewriters that were paid to sprinkle levity into his speeches and press conferences. That practice also went back to Kennedy, who hired several humorists for his 1960 campaign.

So did JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, whose “Humor Group”—as his jokewriters called themselves--assembled on Mondays at 5 p.m., in an office stocked with liquor. They included a young author named Peter Benchley, who would later make millions from his best-selling novel Jaws.

But most of their jokes never made it into LBJ’s speeches. Lacking the Ivy League polish of Kennedy and other East Coast elites, LBJ also lacked the confidence to poke fun at himself. So he rejected any jokes that were even mildly self-deprecating, deeming them “unpresidential.”

Ditto for Richard Nixon, who was simply too uncomfortable in his own skin to make jokes at his own expense. Like LBJ, Nixon displayed a sardonic wit when sparring with the press. But he could never affect the happy-go-lucky humor that Americans appreciate, as his own staff realized.

“HUMOR—Can be corrected to a degree, but let’s not get too obvious about it,” one adviser wrote in 1968, during Nixon’s successful bid for the White House. “If we’re going to be witty, let a pro write the words.” (Nixon demurred, refusing to hire a full-time comic for the campaign.)

Gerald Ford brought a bit more humor to the White House, even doing a gag at a journalists’ dinner about his alleged clumsiness. But Jimmy Carter was all business, often rejecting jokes that his staff inserted in his speeches. “If the American people wanted Bob Hope for their president, they should have elected him,” Carter snapped.

We do want someone who can laugh at themselves, however. And since Reagan, that’s been hard to come by. The two Bush presidents? Too awkward. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama? Too cerebral.

Channeling Reagan, GOP candidates Mike Huckabee and George Pataki have made some cute quips about their respective ages. Huckabee said that most of America’s B-52’s were older than he was—“and that’s pretty scary”—and Pataki joked that he had been considering a White House run “since the Civil War.”

Otherwise, though, it’s slim pickings for self-deprecating humor in 2016. Hillary’s joke about her email was the exception that proves the rule. Get ready for candidates to lob barbs at each other, not at themselves. It won’t be pretty. And it probably won’t be very funny, either.