At least Michael Bloomberg gave it a try.
Having done poorly in a prior debate, he joked during the Charleston, South Carolina, debate that he was surprised the other candidates showed up — because he “did such a good job beating them last week.”
His poorly timed attempt at humor was ridiculed on social media. So what has happened to humor among our presidential candidates?
Partisanship makes way too many of us way too serious way too much of the time. But the American sense of humor has a deep history and most presidents have used it well.
Barack Obama’s deadpan humor brought the house down during several White House Correspondents’ Dinners.
In 2009, he said: “There was a point in my life when I started palling around with a pretty ugly crowd, I’ve got to be honest. These guys were serious deadbeats; they were lowlifes; they were unrepentant no-good punks. That’s right: I’ve been a member of the United States Senate.”
George W. Bush showed a great sense of humor opening the 2005 event: “I look forward to these dinners where I’m supposed to be funny … intentionally.”
Bill Clinton always had a charming twinkle in his eye, as though we were all in on the joke. At the 2000 dinner, amid investigations targeting him and his wife, he said: “Over the last few months I’ve lost 10 pounds. Where did they go? Why haven’t I produced them to the independent counsel? How did some of them manage to wind up on Tim Russert [news show]?”
George H.W. Bush wasn’t noted for his wit, but tried his best. He told the 1989 Gridiron Club dinner: “People say I’m indecisive, but I don’t know about that.”
In Bush’s defense, he did follow one of our wittiest presidents since Abe Lincoln. Ronald Reagan loved to poke fun at socialism and communism.
He told a story about a Russian wanting to buy a car. The man goes to the official agency, puts down his money and is told his car will be delivered in exactly 10 years.
“Morning or afternoon?” the purchaser asks.
“Ten years from now, what difference does it make?” replies the clerk.
“Well,” says the car-buyer, “the plumber’s coming in the morning.”
Which brings us back to current affairs. A Politico writer argues that President Trump has a self-deprecating sense of humor, quoting him as saying: “I do my best work off script. … I also do my worst work off script.”
But where do 2020’s remaining Democratic presidential candidates stand in terms of humor?
Joe Biden is said to be charming and witty in person, but that isn’t coming across on the campaign trail.
Elizabeth Warren? Self-deprecating humor isn’t her strong suit.
Bernie Sanders? Does Bernie ever smile?
Anyone seeking the presidency should remember that Americans want a sense of humor in their presidents. Self-deprecating humor is a sign of confidence and strength — and, in Jimmy Carter’s case, grace.
When he left the White House after only one term, he said this:
“My esteem, in this country, has gone up substantially. It is very nice now when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.”
Tom Purcell (Tom@TomPurcell.com) is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.