Aug 8, 2009

The presidential sense of humor

There's a nice piece by Matt Lai in the NYT mag about Obama's sense of humor. He rounds up all the right examples — the moment in the debates when asked what his failing was and said messiness, only to see Clinton and Edwards say they "care too much." ("well you know I like to help old ladies across the street. Sometimes they don't want to be helped. Its terrible.") And the time he foreswore, under pressure from McCain, some new white house helicopters ("The helicorpter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. Of course, Ive never had a helicopter before..."). And edgiest of all, his recent joke that were he to get caught trying to break into his own residence, "I'd get shot." Lai makes the essential point: that Obama's sense of humor is essentially absurdist, looking askance at the pomp and imposture of high office.
"Such a perspective is entirely new in the White House, born perhaps of the same deconstructionist ethos that gave us The Simpsons and The Onion — self aware acts of ridicule that would have seemed wholly out of place in the age of All In The Family."
I would add a particular pecadillo of his: he seems to find old people funny. Again and again on the campiagn trail, he picked out a pensioner in the audience and riffed with them, to everyone's gathering delight — offering the vice-presidency to some old dear in clogs and shawl, waving the walking stick carved for him by an elderly gent and saying he'd "whup" congress's behind if they didn't pass his healthcare bill. This mixture of ease and vinegar may come from being raised largely by your grandparents, as he was. The absent father accounts for the hollowness-of-authority stuff, I think. Obama's best jokes are remeniscent of the child who points out that the emperor has no clothes. Except now he's the Emperor being carried down the street, in all his finery, his vast retinue behind, so dry self-mockery — rare in a politician — becomes his best self-defence.

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