For a guy who famously does not read the papers, George W. Bush sure knows how the fourth estate gets its kicks. So when the president appeared last week at the 60th annual dinner of the Radio and Television News Correspondents Association to roast himself for the benefit of people whose contempt for him comes with a dental plan, he brought his best stuff.
While screening a slide show of photographs of himself in various amusing positions, the president put up a picture of himself searching for something under Oval Office furniture. "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere!" he announced.
The journos yukked it up. This they could understand. If Alexander Pope had it right about wit being "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed" then the president and the press were finally speaking the same language.
The president concluded on a somber note, with a picture of soldiers in Afghanistan at a site where they had buried pieces of the World Trade Center. It was a stirring moment. The journos clapped their appreciation. Maybe that Bush wasn't so bad after all.
THE VERY NEXT DAY, it was business as usual for the press. Scribblers who delighted in the president's self-deprecating shtick overnight had lost their sense of humor. Out went the laugh line, replaced by the old-line cynicism: the president, headlines screamed, had overstepped his bounds by joking about WMDs.
The Nation's David Corn, who by his own admission passed the evening chuckling and sipping vin blanc, sobered up to spew his signature stream of anti-Bush bile. CNN trotted out a host of huffy emails claiming the president was insensitive to all the soldiers who had died in Iraq. Maureen Dowd took the prize for nuttiest Bush-smear with her suggestion that the president was implicated in the death of David Bloom, the young NBC journalist who died in Iraq and was honored at the dinner. Bloom, insisted Ms. Dowd, "would not have been there without the hyped claims for WMD."
Leave aside Ms. Dowd's warped conviction that journalism exists solely to discredit an administration she doesn't fancy. Ms. Dowd seems to have missed Melanie Bloom's touching ode to her husband, during which she read aloud from a letter he wrote praising the "soldiers fighting to help the people of Iraq." No matter, though; the damage was done.
The Kerry campaign, sniffing blood, issued a faux-outraged press release. Meanwhile, Clinton shill Terry McAuliffe bellyached, apparently without a trace of irony, about decency: "It's inappropriate to the thousands of people who have been wounded over there," he whined to ABC's Good Morning America on Friday. Even that was a mere slip of the tongue compared to the chutzpah of Clinton speechwriter Mark Katz, whom CNN fished out to carp that the president "should not be making light of the situation."
Katz, it is helpful to remember, is the wag who had little trouble "making light" of allegations that Clinton was using the Lincoln Bedroom to raise campaign funds. For a 1997 White House Correspondents' dinner, Katz penned this zinger: "The bad news is that our only child is going off to college. The good news is, it opens up another bedroom." Get it? It's funny because Mr. Clinton was grossly abusing his presidential privileges.
ALREADY IN FULL ATTACK-DOG mode, the press wasn't about to allow these tiresome details curb its fervor. Truth be told, I wasn't too keen on the WMD-bit myself, partly because I preferred the president's line about having the "fab-five" from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy makeover John Ashcroft, and partly because I assumed, correctly it seems, that the media wouldn't be mature enough to handle it. Oh, they'll chime on about how the president has only to admit an Intel-failure for all to be forgiven, but their vein-popping overreaction to the WMD joke proves what bushwa that is: They don't want the president to be sorry; they want him to supplicate.
Mr. Kerry had a different agenda. He wanted to talk morality, mostly because with polls showing that the president is more trusted than he is -- a March 19-21 Ipsos-Associated Press poll found that voters, by a margin of 45 percent to 40 percent, thought Mr. Bush was more honest than John Kerry -- credibility is not on the table. Instead he railed against Mr. Bush's bad taste in jokes.
Mr. Kerry knows all about tasteless jokes. If the surest way to kill a joke is to explain it, then the surest way to have to explain one is to joke about killing. And back in 1988, Kerry had a whole lot of explaining to do. The reason was a howler he told about Vice President Dan Quayle: "Somebody told me the other day that the Secret Service has orders that if George Bush is shot, they're to shoot Quayle," cracked Kerry. Then he wondered, "There isn't any press here, is there?" Indeed, an Associated Press reporter was there, and as a result, today we know this about John Kerry: He may share a Chiracian cheering section with Jerry Lewis, but he's not nearly as funny.
THAT MAY BE A BIG advantage for the president. Likeability is a difficult thing to quantify, but if comfort using humor is any measure, Bush has a clear edge. Hitting joke after joke last week, the president appeared warm and charming -- a guy you could talk to without suffering through a pseudo-populist dissertation on the nobility of New England brahminhood. Better still, he's funny. And in a close election, the fact of squaring off against a Democrat who can hardly get off a punch line without lapsing into finger-wagging pedantry could prove decisive.
What's more, if history is any indication, the electorate loves a good laugh. Ronald Reagan's popularity is a testament to the potential of humor. In fact, Reagan weathered a WMD-like moment in 1988, when, under fire for arms sales to Iran, he joked at a dinner for Washington correspondents that the missing money from the sales had been diverted to the Southern Methodist University football team. Despite the media's grumbling, Reagan stayed steadily popular.
Mr. Kerry, too, has history in mind -- a strategy evidenced by his desperate attempt to drape himself in the Kennedy mantle. He'll fail for various reasons, not least of which is the fact that he's not as funny as JFK was. Consider, whereas Mr. Kerry's Vietnam service has become another cumbersome block in his much-touted personal narrative, Kennedy made the best of his military service by selling himself short. Asked how he became a war hero in World War II, Kennedy once joked, "It was absolutely involuntary. They sank my boat." But then, JFK was distinct in yet another way: He was the last sitting senator to win the White House.