There’s a lovely widow I know named Mrs. Herman, but I doubt that she would appreciate a joke about how she “misses her man.” Nor is the Mayor of New Orleans likely to crack a smile if you refer to him as “Rain Again.” Wit is all about timing, you see. Gallows humor has its place, but for the executioner to whisper “Have you seen the latest noose from the Governor’s office?” before he pulls the cord is a trifle rude.
In that vein, you probably don’t want to hear the punch line to these facetious questions: What did FBI Agent Costello ask fellow agent Abbott when they began their shift? Why did the Texas grand juror miss seeing the Astros in the World Series? How many White House staffers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Yep, the Administration has had some rough times lately and it would be in poor taste to make their discomfiture an occasion for jest. When the critics all go knock, knock, a true friend is the one who’s there. As such, it is our duty to be very serious.
AND YET my best, most serious advice to the Administration is to develop a sense of humor. It is a primal and primary truth of our culture that people respond to leadership that shows wit — not merely composure — in times of crisis. R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. pointed out in these pages fifteen years ago, in a barbed broadside at the editing of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, that when Ronald Reagan told Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” it sent a message of reassurance to an entire nation: despite taking a bullet, he had things under control.
Among Jews, this strategy certainly has an honorable pedigree. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau (1713-1793), author of Noda B’Yehuda, a classic work on Jewish law, became chief rabbi of Prague circa 1750, promoted from a post in a small town. On his first holiday in the prestigious new job, he faced a classic battle. Half the synagogue wanted to recite the “piyut” (optional liturgical poetry adding about an hour to the service) and half were opposed. They suddenly turned to him: “Well, Rabbi, what was the custom in your previous congregation?”
“The custom was to argue about it,” he answered. The atmosphere lightened, enabling him to broker a compromise.
A similar approach helped him mediate a dispute between the two wealthiest men in the city. They had built facing mansions at the end of a cul-de-sac and were obsessed with trying to outdo each other in displays of opulence. Once a peripatetic band of street musicians set up a stand midway between the two homes and began playing, hoping for generous tips. Both men came out into the alley at the same time and a shouting match ensued. Each maintained that the players had come in his honor as a noted tycoon, not for that preening wannabe across the way. They stormed into the rabbi’s office and demanded he settle the question.
“This will cost you a hundred gold coins for my time,” he said. After they each paid their fifty, he concluded: “The musicians actually came in my honor, so I could earn this hundred.” His gag broke the ice and the men came to their senses.
In more recent times, my friend Moshe Toiv was hired in 1975 as rabbi of a small but rapidly growing community in South Bend, Indiana. At his very first board meeting, there was a tussle between the members over an important matter of ritual. He didn’t say a word but as the fray grew more heated he began to audibly hum a familiar jingle: “Have it your way… at Burger King.” Everyone laughed and got the message: they were trying to have their way instead of asking him what was correct. Could he have won the day using more ponderous language? He thought not and I think not.
This stuff works just as well in the political realm, and for the same reasons. People want to respect their leaders but they want guidance without being put down. They also like to see a relaxed, confident hand at the helm. And they need a good laugh to break all that tension.
The best sort of witticism for this situation features a dose of self-deprecation, but without a hint of despair. If they ask about mistakes, try Oscar Wilde: “I’m not young enough to think I know everything.” If they ask about setbacks, go with George Bernard Shaw: “If you’re getting kicked in the behind, it shows you’re ahead.”
Well, now that you have permission to laugh, I can see you’re itching for those punch lines. What did FBI Agent Costello ask Agent Abbott? “Who’s on Frist?” Why did the Texas grand juror miss the Astros game? To arraign DeLay. How many White House staffers for a light bulb? Just one, but she has to be a pioneer — and it might be a dim bulb at that.