In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Michael Phillips-Anderson of Monmouth University explores the effective use of humor by politicians.
Michael Phillips-Anderson is an assistant professor of communication at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland College Park.
Dr. Michael Phillips-Anderson – Presidents and Humor
In a democracy, choosing our leaders may not be very different from choosing our mates.
We find people attractive with whom we share a worldview and an understanding of our backgrounds and beliefs. And we want someone who can make us laugh.
Rhetorical humor by politicians pushes past our rational defenses and gets at our instincts, persuading where facts fail. The laughter that accompanies humor forces us to lose control of our bodies and our reason, to suddenly like a candidate we’ve been conditioned to hate, even just for a moment.
Throughout American history, many presidents have strategically used humor. Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were two of the most skilled.
Lincoln had an ear for entertaining, collecting anecdotes and keeping them at the ready to make a point. Although many of the jokes attributed to Lincoln are of questionable authenticity—when accused of lying he reportedly said, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” his public humor was well-recorded in his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas .Lincoln attacked Douglas’ position on slavery, as an argument “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.”
A century later, at the start of the television age, John F. Kennedy used his quick wit and preplanned jokes to persuade voters. In 1958, Kennedy was running for reelection to the Senate. At a Gridiron Club dinner, where all the speeches were laced with humor, he listened while other speakers joked about his family’s political influence. As Kennedy came at the podium, he pulled a piece of paper from his suit pocket that he said was a telegram from “my generous daddy.” He read, “Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.” The telegram allowed JFK to deflect the charges of nepotism, and it demonstrated that the young Kennedy was talented and capable enough to have the confidence to laugh about a sensitive subject.
Rhetorical humor cuts through our planning, expectations, and calculations. The ridiculous overwhelms the reasonable and gives us one of the few authentic experiences in political rhetoric: it can truly move us.