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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
6 Feb 2016
Cracking the Code of Campaign-Speak

"Do you ever get the feeling," asked humorist Robert Orben, "that the only reason we have elections is to … Read More.

30 Jan 2016
Is There Only One True Progressive?

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. In our polarized politics, the … Read More.

23 Jan 2016
The Man Who Drowned Democracy With 'Sewer Money'

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. This week marked the anniversary of … Read More.

Political Humor: A Serious Matter


Every presidential campaign expends enormous amounts of effort and energy to convince a skeptical press and, more importantly, interested voters that its candidate possesses a genuine sense of humor. To be without a sense of humor is probably un-American, as well as evidence of terminal pomposity and self-importance — not traits voters prize in their public officials.

There is some logic here. In a presidential candidate, a real sense of humor can reassure Americans, whose vote for president is the most personal one they cast. A vote for Congress or state senator is far more likely to be based on the candidate's party affiliation or position on issues such as same-sex marriage or Social Security. In a president, we voters look for — and are confident we can recognize — those special qualities of character and personality we so value in our national leader.

Self-deprecatory humor, where a candidate publicly kids his own perceived weaknesses and mistakes, can communicate to voters that candidate's emotional security. At this, nobody was better than President Ronald Reagan, whose abbreviated workdays enabled critics to question the aging chief executive's energy level. To a dinner hosted by the press, a smiling Gipper cracked, "It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?"

At Washington's annual Gridiron dinner, where there are three guest speakers — a Democrat, a Republican and the president or his designated substitute — Texas Gov. Rick Perry brilliantly kidded himself about his factual gaffes and failed campaign. Noting President Obama's absence, he added: "I read that he is in Korea, at the DMZ. Would somebody tell me, why do you have to go all the way to Korea to get a driver's license?Must be something to do with that birth certificate thing."

Of the 2012 candidates to whom he lost: "The weakest Republican field in history — and they kicked my butt!" Then, wistfully: "I don't know why I didn't do better.

I'm governor of a big state. A former military pilot. I graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in animal husbandry. Maybe that was the problem. Animal husbandry sounds like what Rick Santorum thinks gay marriage will lead to."

Of course, even well-crafted, self-deprecating humor of the caliber Rick Perry delivered so well could not compensate for his factual missteps and his own weak debate performances. Still, in most instances, before people vote for you, they first have to like you.

And the candidate who can comfortably laugh at his own shortcomings makes it difficult for the press — or that candidate's opponents — to try to recirculate those identical defects. Such critics can come across as common scolds.

After President Reagan's tax cuts had failed to generate the cascading new federal revenues that he had promised and led instead to then-record peacetime budget deficits, he kidded: "I'm not going to worry about the deficit. It's big enough to take care of itself."

President Barack Obama, who appears to be a total stranger to self-doubt, insisted that he really was accessible to the press: "I even sat for an interview with Bill O'Reilly. ... That was a change of pace. I don't often get a chance to be in a room with an ego that's bigger than mine."

Gov. Mitch Daniels showed a daring streak when he told the 2011 Gridiron dinner, "I bring greetings from my beloved Indiana — a land of surprises, where, as we say, South Bend is in the north, North Vernon is in the south, and French Lick is not what you hoped it was."

Political candidates with the inability to laugh at themselves just make me nervous. A sense of humor is no guarantee of good judgment. But don't trust with power anyone who lacks a sense of humor.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




7 Comments | Post Comment
A sense of humor is a good thing to have, but Obama needs to lay off the drone jokes. He'll jokingly say that he's going to drone people, but thats not funny, cause he actually does.
Most things that Rick Santorum says are jokes because they are so absurd. Why don't him and Gingrich go start a moon colony that excludes gays where people only have sex to procreate.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Fri Mar 30, 2012 9:18 AM
Sir;... I was born near the end of the Korean conflict, that has justly been called a war... I grew up with Vietnam, and it was decidedly better to end it than to send me to fight it... It does not matter to me that people fight and die, but that they should fight and die in futility is revolting... Our wars have been our failures because we stumble into them, and fight until we grow sick of them, and then find our way out again... What could have been more futile than fighting ourselves in the Civil War only to find in the end that nothing was gained, that Blacks had only limited freedom under the threat of terror, that the Constitution -whose failures made war certain, was not changed for the better, and the states were left pretty much as they were with antagonism sharpened, and vengeance demanded???...
Our wars for empire, and our wars in defense of empire have been an exercise in futility for this people, gaining us the enmity of the world, and a beat and broken population at home... It does not matter that Korea stalemated the U.N.; or that it resulted in the Communists in China more firmly in control... It does not matter that our obvious defeat in the war in Vietnam was only a battle on the way to victory over Soviet Russia because that victory has only been an excuse to attack liberalism in the U.S.; and join in adventures where no Christian in their right mind would go, or stay for long...My personal history is as long as the United States... I had people in the Revolutionary War, and I had people in the Civil War, and my father fought in the Second World War... To see young men die for political whims, and to see the rich evade the cost of the empire from which they alone profited made my father very aware...
Today, the republicans are choosing the military over social programs, bullets over butter... They know a strong military is a great defense against social unrest, but it is essential if we will defend Israel and our satellites abroad...We are becoming like an egg that is all shell and no chick... The rich expect the poor to defend their poverty, insecurity, and hopelessness... In my lifetime I have seen the condemnation heaped on socialists and communists turned against anyone with a liberal frame of mind; but the right governed by ideology, is not fit to govern this country... The spectacle of a partisan Supreme Court trying to stretch a two hundred year old constitution to cover the naked need of today is pitiful...
In my lifetime seen this country burly and brawney and ready to fight, certain that we were the greatest nation with the answer to the world's woes become one unable to afford for its citizens even a moderate security in their old age...We would like to own the world; but the only people we truly hate are right here, and we are divided along the same lines as always... The line between rich and poor written into our Constitution, and never erased is now strong enough to hang us once again... We will bleed for the failures of that document, and we already wreathe in pain... Let the politicians laugh while we cry for justice, for peace, for tranquility and general welfare... They want an army... They need an army because they do not have right on their side...We need to be an army, to discipline ourselves to the fact that a job half done is not done at all... The Civil War, and our War for Independence did not give us freedom or justice... People simply grew tired of fighting and surrendered their task to another age... We are that age that must tear down the old, and bury it good and deep to build a new social form for a new tomorrow; and as always, out of dire necessity... The old form of government no longer meets our needs or serves our purpose...The government is the enemy of this people... We need change...It is revolution time again... Thanks... Sweeney
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Mar 31, 2012 5:11 AM
Mr. Sweeney, I find your comment far more interesting than the column written by Mr. Shields because I share your sentiment. My son, a vet of the first Gulf War argues many of the points you raised, I raised them, too. He is an outspoken defender of our Constitution and our country and I say with pride, his knowledge and intellect is far superior than that of his parent. It is his argument that the documents are good and the framers of the Constitution wrote it in such a way it could be added to or subtracted from in order to serve the people. The document is good, the politicians are not. I wish it were he and not I responding, but I have the time to peruse and read at my leisure, he continues to work hard to ensure he and his family, which includes me, have a degree of financial security. We have spent many an afternoon in discussion of politics, racism, current events. I would enjoy sending him your comment because he will, when he has the time, respond in writing and in a manner far more organized. I will check from time to time for your permission.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Steve
Sat Mar 31, 2012 7:56 AM
Re: Steve; thank you, and I do not mean to step on Mr. Shields who is one of the smartest and nicest people in the business... I do not share your son's belief in Ye Old Constitution... If it had not embodied, and attempted to compromise two major differences of opinion regarding slavery, it would not have been necessary to fight what turned out to be a very futile civil war; in that freedom for Black People was only a political fiction afterwards, and property rights, which were the cause of the war primarily, ended the war in a stronger position than they began the war...

The real problems presented by the constitution besides trying to reconcile property and human rights was the ease with which extra-constitutional changes were made, and our inability to reverse them... Many people felt the injustice of the constitution as written, and out of that sense of injustice, parties were formed, but now the parties have taken over government, and what ever passes the government must first gain the attention of the parties...

In addition, the extraconstitutional change in the ratio of representatives to voters has made the house of representatives the playground of the parties...All of our districts are carved into rotton bouroughs that regularly send one party's representative to washington, and denies representation to supporters of the other party...It is not simply that 45% have no representation of their own party, but that fewer ideas are then brought before government when government clearly needs new ideas...

It was a mistake to empower churches by turning them into tax dodges for the rich... They are more about political influence than the work of God as simple unprejudiced charity...Their interests are well represented, but they do not represent the poor, the diseased, and the hopeless...

Even the freedom of press, and free expression have been turned against the people who defend all rights with their blood and taxes... I am not saying that people should not be able to speak their minds, but when corporations are virtual people, and money gives them a megaphone, it gives the people a whisper...

As Jefferson suggested, failed forms need to be replaced though it is unnatural for people to do so... In fact; in the long span of history the changing of forms is the story of all human progress, so nothing could be more natural, though people fear to do it... Best to ya; and share what you will with anyone... Thanks... Sweeney
Comment: #4
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Mar 31, 2012 12:39 PM
OMG! Mark wrote a great little article on political humor and you guys have blown it all out of proportion. Relax and enjoy!
Comment: #5
Posted by: Mike Ohr
Sun Apr 1, 2012 10:32 AM
Re: Mike Ohr; Sir... I know Mr. Shields as a fine and funny guy who has no small appreciation for the humor and irony of life... You should know that nothing falls flatter on the ears of the American Publics who see such nonsense as politcal fiddling while their collective barn burns...Look Mike; the division on this country upon every possible line is really inexcusable, and the fact that the politicians are often victimized by the forces they set in motion is just too damned bad... Every district is divided to give one party or the other power at the expense of a sizable minority... What would be so difficult about sending two representatives with each one having that proportion of votes they recieved???...
If representation is the greatest good, and as close as we can get to real democracy, then let us big lot it... We only have a fraction of the per person representation that our forefathers once had, though they had far less ability to support a larger number...Almost the entire failure of government to answer the needs of this people can be laid at the feet of the house which fixed their number so that the parties could manage the representatives... Who says, and where is it written in the constitution that government should be managed by the parties???
If this people should be hamstrung and frustrated in order to have party managed government, then the price is too high...I don't care if we send thousands, or if those thousands sent should riot... It is better for a few people to run riot, and do battle than for this whole nation to smolder in pain, frustration, and compounded injustice... For government to keep this people powerless so they can have our power is criminal on its face, but it is a course that leaves us divided, and ultimately without defense, and that is nothing to laugh about...Thanks... Sweeney...
Comment: #6
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Apr 2, 2012 4:30 AM
Mr. Sweeney, with thanks, I have indeed passed your comments on under the heading "pearls of wisdom". A visit is planned mid-April and a lively conversation expected. I hope to share the end product of that conversation with you at a later date. Regards... Steve Mason.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Steve
Mon Apr 2, 2012 10:05 AM
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