Mitt Romney keeps surprising people -- in a positive way. First he turns out the best debater ever in American presidential politics -- going back to the first Nixon-Kennedy debate.
Now it seems that he is an excellent stand-up comedian -- working in the deadpan style of a Jack Benny or Bob Newhart.
Having already whipped Barack Obama in their two debates, Romney faced off against the president again on Thursday night at the Alfred E. Smith dinner in New York to benefit Catholic charities -- a black tuxedo and white bow-tie affair where the two men competed strictly for laughs before a politically savvy audience looking only for amusement.
Just as in the first debate, the self-preening president seemed strangely deflated -- and unsure of himself. He chose what is always thought to be the safe road in humor -- and that is to say, the self-deprecatory road. He joked mostly about his poor performance in the first debate. He also joked about the laughing, sneering, clownish antics of his running mate Joe Biden in his debate with Paul Ryan.
In one of several self-putdowns that made me cringe, as it seemed so odd and unnatural, Obama said:
I particularly want to apologize to Chris Matthews. Four years ago, I gave him a thrill up his leg; this time I gave him a stroke.
Obama's best -- and, really, his only good line at his own expense -- was this one:
Of course, there's a lot of things I learned from that experience (the lopsided loss in the first debate). For example, I learned that there are worse things that can happen to you on your anniversary than forgetting to buy a gift.
He said of Joe Biden:
I've heard some people say, "Barack, you're not as young as you used to be. Where's that golden smile? Where's that pep in your step?" And I say, "Settle down, Joe. I'm trying to run a cabinet meeting here.'"
What Obama did not dare to do in this arena -- even with a largely Democratic audience -- was to engage in any biting humor at the expense of his Republican opponent -- whom he had impaled in campaign ads as a cold, heartless plutocrat who was totally out of touch with half or more of the American people.
That version of Mitt Romney did not pop up in any of Obama's sallies in their mano a mano at the Waldorf-Astoria. The best that he could manage in the physical presence of his opponent was to say:
Of course, world affairs are a challenge for every candidate. After -- some of you guys remember -- my foreign trip in 2008, I was attacked as a celebrity because I was so popular with our allies overseas. And I have to say I'm impressed with how well Governor Romney has avoided that problem.
The above passage indicates how difficult it is for the president to stop being self-reverential, even when he is doing his best to be self-deprecating.
In contrast to the president, Romney did not avoid the question of his own wealth. He began with a light reference to the plutocratic version of himself that Team Obama trots out in its ads and campaign stops:
Now Al, you were right, a campaign can require a lot of wardrobe changes. Blue jeans in the morning perhaps, suits for a lunch fundraiser, sport coat for dinner, but it's nice to finally relax and wear what Ann and I wear around the house.
A few sentences after that came the first of many caustic (and brilliantly funny) remarks. This was:
I was actually hoping the president would bring Joe Biden along this evening, because he'll laugh at anything.
Romney then went on to speculate what was going on in the president's head at that very moment:
… as President Obama surveys the Waldorf banquet room with everyone in white tie and finery, you have to wonder what he's thinking: So little time, so much to redistribute.
And don't be surprised if the president mentions this evening the monthly jobs report where there was a slight improvement in the numbers. He knows how to seize the moment, this president. And already has a compelling new campaign slogan, "You're better off now than you were four weeks ago.
It was at this point that Romney made the first of several references to his supposedly stiff and formal personality -- and the fact that as a Mormon he did not drink wine or any other alcohol:
You know, with all the dignitaries who are here, the Al Smith dinner surely lives up to its billing. Usually when I get invited to gatherings like this, it's just to be the designated driver.
It is notable the likes of Chris Matthews and Katie Couric were now laughing at almost everything Romney said -- including the jibes at the president and vice president.
While Obama flashed a big smile after every joke, Romney does stand-up comedy in the deadpan style -- forswearing exaggerated facial expressions while letting the words speak for themselves. And his timing is excellent.
"People seem to be very curious just as to how we prepare for the debates," Romney innocently observed. "Let me tell you what I do."
Then came a series of zingers:
First, refrain from alcohol for 65 years before the debate.
Second, find the biggest available straw man and then just mercilessly attack it.
Big Bird didn't even see it coming.
And by the way, in the spirit of Sesame Street, the president's remarks tonight are brought to you by the letter "O" and the number $16 trillion.
Does everyone remember the president's feigned ignorance on the David Letterman show when asked the size of the national debt? Well, there it is -- the $16 trillion -- with a great big "O" in front of it.
Any comedian will tell you that one laugh begets another. Once people are laughing, it's not so hard to keep them laughing. At this point, Romney essayed his edgiest remark of the night -- and again it worked, judging by the audience's reaction:
Campaigns can be grueling, exhausting. President Obama and I are very lucky to have one person who is always in our corner, someone who we lean on, and someone who is a comforting presence. Without whom, we couldn't be able to go another day. I have my beautiful wife Ann, he has Bill Clinton.
Then there was one last perfectly executed dig at Joe Biden:
We got a big dose of the Biden charm last week, I tell you that, in his debate with Paul Ryan, I'm not sure all that carrying on had the effect that Joe intended. Because afterwards I heard from the Federal Election Commission, from now on whenever he appears on TV, there's a recording of me afterwards that says, "I'm Mitt Romney and I approved this message."
Then came a brilliant comedic transition -- from Joe Biden to the role of the mainstream media in pulling out all the stops to promote the reelection of the president:
Of course rules of fairness have to be enforced, because what other safeguard do we have, besides the press?
There was just a little Bob Newhart-like pause (and no change of expression) at the end of that sentence, which was followed by laughter as soon as the words sank in. He then continued:
… now I never suggest that the press is biased. I recognize that they have their job to do, and I have mine. My job is to lay out a positive vision for the future of the country, and their job is to make sure that no one else finds out about it.
So, yes, the next president of the United States -- surprise, surprise -- is likely to have an excellent sense of humor even if he doesn't seem to think that he is anything all that special.
People who know him well invariably describe him as humble, hard-working, serious, caring, responsible, and, yes, funny.
Surely, we need someone like that to be the designated driver in bringing America back to its senses.
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