There was once a time when a leitmotif of humor ran through our national politics. But not today. A somber mood envelops the White House and Capitol Hill.
There is certainly plenty to be somber about, but in the old days, even in times of peril, there was room for an uplifting wisecrack. Ronald Reagan, with a would-be assassin’s bullets lodged in his belly, looked up at his wife Nancy as he was being wheeled into the operating room and famously cracked, “Honey, I forgot to duck!”
In the toxic stew that is today’s Washington, it is difficult to find Reagan’s counterpart. Our president’s sense of humor seems to have been arrested in the eighth grade. Our congressional leaders are mostly glum scolds. South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsay Graham showed promise for a while, but he hasn’t been witty for months. And a certified congressional comic, Al Franken, was run out of town by #MeToo.
Abner Mikva, a former Illinois congressman, federal judge and White House counsel, was a fount of political humor back in the day. He loved to tell about his attempt to volunteer in Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson’s re-election campaign when he was a student at the University of Chicago.
He approached his local alderman, an organization man.
“Who sent ya?” asked the alderman.
“Nobody, sir,” stammered Mikva, “I’m a college student and I want to help Governor Stevenson.”
“We don’t want nobody, what nobody sent,” responded the alderman. End of interview.
Mikva would often follow up that story with this one, which may - or may not - have been apocryphal: It’s Election Day in Chicago. The organization’s slate is in danger. A party worker sends two of his men to the local cemetery to collect names from headstones in case more favorable votes are needed. They split the job, east and west.
The east-side guy finishes first and calls to his colleague, C’mon let’s go, we gotta get back to headquarters.” “
Hold your damned horses,” replies the west-side guy, “I’m not finished. And my people got as much right to vote as your people!”
I’ve got a favorite from my own life in Maryland politics: It is the 1964 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate between Joe Tydings, former U.S. attorney and my former boss, and state comptroller Louis Goldstein. Mr. Tydings didn’t enjoy much support from Baltimore’s political clubs, most of which supported Goldstein.
We Tydings supporters - the so-called “shiny brights” - feared that Election Day mischief would occur in the precincts where the clubs were powerful. We organized a squad of young lawyers, recruited from Baltimore’s downtown law firms, to spend Election Day in enemy territory to protect our candidate’s interest.
But how were we to know what to look for? Ex-mayor Phil Goodman, recently thrown out of office by the voters and one of the few professional politicians on our side, provided the answer. He produced one of his minions, Joe Giordano - known as “Joe the Barber” - to lecture us shiny brights on what to watch out for on Election Day.
The Giordano lecture was an extraordinary event. Forty or so pinstriped young lawyers crowded into a small room on the second floor of the Tydings campaign headquarters on Baltimore Street. Joe the Barber told us what it was like on the streets. Baltimore’s elite took notes as if this were one of Harvard Law School’s Holmes lectures. Joe’s finale was his unforgettable admonition that we pay special attention to the voting booth: “If you see four feet under the curtain,” warned Joe in his melodious, heavily accented English, “that’s not a horse!”
We are now in another election season. Voters will be called upon to make some very serious choices. But that doesn’t mean that the season must be humorless.
At election time I always try to keep in mind the immortal words of Dick Tuck. During the 1960s and ’70s, Tuck was a Democratic handyman, funnyman and prankster. In 1966 he presented himself as a candidate for election to California’s state senate. He lost. His concession speech was succinct: “The voters have spoken - the bastards!”
I’m sure that Tuck, who died in May, was genuinely disappointed. But I’m also sure he knew his concession speech would get a laugh.
There should always be room for humor - and genial civility a la Ronald Reagan - in what the Baltimore Sun’s celebrated political columnist in a bygone era, Frank R. Kent, styled as “the great game of politics.”
Stephen H. Sachs was U.S. attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and state attorney general from 1979 to 1987. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org