Saturday, October 09, 2004

Humor in American Politics

The last couple of weeks have been insanely busy for me at work, and every time I sit down to write a post, something happens to distract me from it. A few days ago, I actually got partway through one, and never quite got through it. Hopefully, I'll get through that post and put it up in a few days.

This past week, they had the presidential debates between Kerry and Bush, and the vice-presidential debates between Edwards and Cheney. The one thing that struck me in watching these debates is how sterile they all seemed. That feeling of sterility makes sense when you think about all the stupid rules they put around these debates - like the one that says the candidates aren't allowed to direct questions at each other, or the fact that all of the questions were pre-determined prior to the start of the debate, and not created ad-hoc during the debate based on the candidates' answers.

As a Canadian living here, I find American politics to be very dry and boring - people have no sense of humor about it. Here in America, the candidates seem to think that making witty remarks may be perceived by the public as being unbefitting a leader, and may cost them votes. They're also afraid of the personal attacks the other party will launch against them if they allow their true selves to surface.

In Canada, it is quite the opposite: people (including politicians) realize that if they use humor, people will laugh but remember what they said, and sometimes they even go a bit overboard. I remember when I was a kid watching a debate the Canadian parliament and saw the following humorous exchange: Brian Tobin (the fisheries critic in the Liberal party, complaining about French vessels fishing in the Grand Banks): "I don't think the Candian people appreciate the honorable Minister's idea of French Immersion." The retort from John Crosby (the fisheries minister at the time): "I'm sure any Western farmer can tell the honorable member what he is immersed in!" (in other words, cow manure). John Crosby's the same guy who was once debating Sheila Copps and quoted a song: "Pass the tequila, Sheila. Lie down and love me again," - he ended up publicly apologizing for that one, but Copps is still known by the nickname "Tequila Sheila" by some people to this day.

About eight years ago, Mel Lastman (then the mayor of North York, a suburb of Toronto, Canada) read a news magazine comparing Edmonton (another Canadian city) to North York and commented, "Comparing North York to Edmonton is like comparing a stylish brick bungalow to a clapboard outhouse." He made that comment in front of a bunch of reporters, making for some interesting coverage, especially in the Edmonton newspapers. A few years later, Lastman was mayor of Toronto and was supposed to be going to a meeting in Mombasa, Kenya, and quipped, "What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa? ... I'm sort of scared about going there ... I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me." Of course, the Kenyan press picked up on that one, and not knowing Mel's history of making jokes like that took it very seriously. Of course, you'd never see anything like that in American politics - EVER.

That is one thing that really struck me in moving to the United States is how serious people seem to be about everything all the time. People seem to think that allowing their true selves to come through in their business dealings exposes their vulnerabilities and allows others to know their flaws, and thus they only let their guard down when they're around people they really know. Of course, the politicians, thinking they need to make an even better example of this, make a point of never being funny, and never even allowing people to see them laugh or making funny remarks. There have been a few notable exceptions to this rule, but most American politicians seem to like to follow the model of Queen Victoria with her famous quote, "we are NOT amused!"

The flip side to this is people tend to better trust a person who has demonstrated that they are human, flaws and all, which is one of the reasons I think Clinton remained so popular, even after the debacle with Monica Lewinsky.

You wonder sometimes why there is such a high degree of apathy among many voters here today. Maybe if Bush and Kerry made a more heartfelt attempt to emotionally connect with voters, it would help fix this sense of apathy. Dumping the "image consultants", and letting voters see politicians as their natural selves (complete with a sense of humor and some weaknesses and vulnerabilities) would be a good start.