Reagan could tell a good joke and recount an amusing anecdote. However, more importantly, it showed that he understood the value of restraint and that he could disagree without impugning the character of his political opponents. A lighthearted response had greater impact than a strident or bitter denunciation of an adversary. Reagan sought and achieved political victories without indulging in the politics of personal destruction. He did not see his rivals as enemies but as components of a free political system in which debate and disagreements are inevitable.
By Stephen R. Bowers | August 17, 2016
“I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency – even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.”
“A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
“Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying.”
In our media driven environment, the average citizen can rightly claim to feel that he personally knows most of our prominent politicians. Their every expression or word is noted and subjected to analysis to determine if it gives us insight into the character of those seeking political power. Thus, personality helps determine the individual’s prospects for electoral success.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton is seen as far less polished than her husband and is widely viewed as simply being unlikable, thus leading to the publication of works such as Unlikeable: The Problem with Hillary by Clinton specialist Edward Klein. Hillary Clinton’s efforts at humor are often described as mechanical or even “cringe worthy,” while President Obama’s use of terms such as “mean burger” to describe a Paul Ryan reform innovation made him sound juvenile. Many people still remember his failed attempt at self-deprecation when he described his efforts at bowling as looking like someone in Special Olympics. Of course, Reagan himself suffered a political setback when his 1984 joke about bombing the Soviet Union backfired.
By contrast, Reagan’s humor was not intended to denigrate or belittle opponents. In an era in which the Don Rickles approach to humor was often the norm, Reagan eschewed the use of humor as a blunt instrument. As any public speaker knows, the use of humor can be risky and few things are remembered longer than a joke that has failed. This is especially true of race-based humor as was demonstrated by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s observation he was running on “CP Time,” which was defined as short for “colored people time.”
Ronald Reagan is widely recognized as one of the most affable presidents in modern times. His political success was not simply a product of effective policies but was helped by popular views of Reagan as an effective communicator, who used humor to buttress his arguments rather than to bludgeon his opponents. It was his genial manner and his sense of humor that made it difficult to dislike Reagan as a person.
Throughout his career, Reagan employed a wide variety of humorous devices. At a crucial point in the 1980 presidential race, it was Reagan’s humor that had a major impact during the debate with Jimmy Carter. When Carter repeated one of his standard attack lines, Reagan’s gentle, light hearted response – “There you go again” – disarmed Carter and was much more effective than a scornful, angry retort would have been. While he may well have been justifiably irritated, we remembered him for his restraint and his tongue-in-cheek delivery.
Effective communicators employ numerous devices that have a humorous effect. If they skillfully utilize a device that builds humor, they are successful. They are all the more successful if they can employ humor during difficult or stressful circumstances. Few times are more challenging than the 1981 assassination attempt that nearly cost Reagan his life. Yet, throughout his stay in the hospital, Reagan employed humor as both a device for encouraging those around him but also as a way for proving that he was still in command of his situation.
He will always be remembered for the remark directed to his surgeon – “Please tell me you are a Republican” – as well as for his question to the nurse who was holding his hand after his surgery – “Does Nancy know about us?” By paraphrasing such figures as W.C. Fields (“…I’d rather be in Philadelphia”) and Jack Dempsey (“…I forgot to duck.”), he showed that in spite of his pain, he could still exhibit perfect comedic timing.
Reagan often employed self-deprecation. In a 2014 interview, comedian Drew Carey noted that the ability to make fun of oneself was the key to self-inoculation against much criticism. This helps explain how Reagan emerged as the “Teflon” president who could overcome almost any apparent shortcoming. Moreover, Reagan seemed to understand that by making fun of his own foibles it made it more difficult for his critics to do the same.
Reagan routinely joked about his advancing years and his failing memory. As he referenced the Founding Fathers, Reagan often noted that he did not know them personally, as an indirect reference to his age. In his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, the most telling moment was his pledge that “…I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Here, in less than twenty-five words, he undermined Mondale’s efforts to portray him as too old to continue in office. Paired with the 1980 “there you go again” remark, this retort highlights the dramatic impact of a few words that were not at all dramatic.
Reagan’s use of humor helped him deflect hostility and avoid some critical questions during the lingering recession of the early 1980s. When reporter Sam Donaldson asked Reagan if any of the blame for the recession belonged to him, Reagan’s response – “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat” – killed any chance for a tough Donaldson follow-up question. His congeniality served Reagan well and prevented an escalation of policy disagreements into personal enmity.
Watching President Reagan revealed that, not only could he employ humor effectively, he actually enjoyed humor and could share it with political rivals such as Tip O’Neil with whom Reagan often joined in watching comedians. Reagan’s ability to do this helped underscore the fact that he was a genuine individual whose persona was not simply a pose but a reflection of the goodness of Reagan’s character. It was equally significant that Reagan understood when humor was appropriate. In private, Reagan’s jokes might be a little off color or based on ethnicity but, in public, he was rarely victimized by his own humor.
Some longtime Reagan associates have suggested that his ability to joke about the most difficult of situations was a lifelong coping mechanism for dealing with stress. As the child of an alcoholic, Reagan lived in an often-unpredictable environment that he would coat over with a well-developed sense of humor. An equally important attribute of Reagan’s humor was that he managed to make his jokes seem spontaneous even when they were not. Although most observers believed his jokes were unplanned, the stack of joke cards he left behind proved that he thought about the jokes he told and calculated their desired impact. The cards also proved that the jokes were usually Reagan’s own and not solely the product of the efforts of writers such as Landon Parvin who helped write jokes Reagan could use. Of course, those who doubt the spontaneity of Reagan’s humor need only to look at his hospital witticisms following the attempt on his life to realize his jocularity was sincere and unscripted.
Clearly, Reagan’s use of humor demonstrated that he could tell a good joke and recount an amusing anecdote. However, more importantly, it showed that he understood the value of restraint and that he could disagree without impugning the character of his political opponents. A lighthearted response had greater impact than a strident or bitter denunciation of an adversary. Reagan sought and achieved political victories without indulging in the politics of personal destruction. He did not see his rivals as enemies but as components of a free political system in which debate and disagreements are inevitable.
For Reagan, humor was not an end in itself; he did not present himself as a political version of a standup comedian. For him, it was a way to defuse tension while generating support for his policies. Humor enabled him to make his points without the harsh rhetoric that has become routine in contemporary political discourse. Hundreds of Reagan jokes are now part of a public record that show the political utility of his congeniality. Reagan’s charm and jocularity served him well as a public figure while also advancing a strategic political agenda that earned him a reputation as one of the United States’ most effective presidents.
Stephen R. Bowers, Ph.D. is a professor of government in the Helms School of Government at Liberty University. Professor Bowers is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.