The news yesterday out of Ukraine that new politician and seasoned comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is leading the presidential polling, far outpacing the incumbent, is reported by major media as shocking. Both here and internationally, it’s not. In point of fact, the right quip here and the right snark there has made pols and conversely worked to bring down candidacies.
From Beppe Grillo in Italy to the one-liner king we here in the U.S. chose as president in 2016, the ability to effectively get a laugh has served to politically punch the lights out of an opponent under the guise of cleverness. In America there have been two masters of this. One who used dark sarcasm and hilariously coercive methods. The other who shoved the shiv in with a smile. In the comedy of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan we see two very different sides of political humor.
After Johnson the advantage here has belonged to the GOP, as leftism is generally mirthless. Okay, Bill Clinton did have this one moment with Boris Yeltsin.
A U.S. Army lieutenant in South Vietnam motioned Johnson over to embark on “…your helicopter, sir” out of a line of a dozen Hueys. LBJ retorted, “Son, these are all my helicopters.” That shows the megalomania with a wink Johnson was notorious for. His habit of trapping recalcitrant legislators in the presidential bathroom while Johnson was answering the call of nature was genius. After a couple of minutes of that, they’d commit to anything to get out.
Reagan had so many good lines it’s hard to count them all. His famous “missed me” after a balloon loudly popped during a speech in Berlin is typical of his good-natured style. The classic was his response to a reporter’s question about his seventy-plus years in a 1984 general election debate, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience and even Mondale cracked up. Game, set, match, the Gipper.
But probably the all-time master of the art is my hero, Winston Churchill.
You’d need volumes to enumerate his wiseass comments about friend and foe alike. Many of us know several. A fave is his response to Nancy Astor when she said, “Winston, if I were your wife I’d poison your coffee.” He responded, “Nancy, if I were your husband I’d drink it.”
Then there is calling opposition party leader Clement Atlee, “A sheep in sheep’s clothing.” And of Joseph Chamberlain, “Mr. Chamberlain loves the working man, he loves to see him work.”
However, the best was his crack when playwright G.B. Shaw wrote him and said, “Have reserved two tickets for opening night. Bring a friend, if you have one.” Churchill hit back with, “Impossible to come first night. Will come to second night, if you have one.”
So bully for Ukraine. If, as many legitimately think, politicians are basically clowns, at least this guy has done it intentionally.
Which is vastly more than we can say for most of them.