Once upon a time, politics was serious business. These days, however, presidential merit is measured as much by frat-house standards as by traditional approval ratings (apparently, American voters would rather have a beer with Bush than with Kerry), and a well-timed joke can sometimes sway public opinion more effectively than a reasoned argument. Thanks to the advent of television as a force in politics—not to mention the rise of 24-hour news channels and the internet—politicians now work closely with comedy writers to add laugh lines to their speeches and, in the process, improve their images.
But when it comes to women in politics, the rise of humor as a campaign requirement only makes their efforts more difficult. Former Texas governor Ann Richards may have gotten laughs at the 1988 Democratic National Convention when she described George H.W. Bush as having been born “with a silver foot in his mouth,” but she also made enemies: A few years later, when George the Younger defeated Richards for the governorship, his supporters cited that very line as a particular offense. Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, in an interview with political analysts Sue Tolleson-Rinehart and Jeanie R. Stanley for their 1994 book Claytie and the Lady, said of Richards: “I think…[one] thing that men find very threatening is funny women. I mean, with Ann it was a real problem…. They just did not know what to make of her…. If they realize that a woman can be funny, I think men are afraid that that tone can be used against them. And they don’t like it.” In 19th- and early 20th-century America, women were generally viewed as entirely lacking in a sense of humor, and witty women were deemed not only aberrant but most likely sexually promiscuous. It’s arguable whether things have changed much since then: While there are certainly more female humorists now, the shibboleth “women just aren’t funny” persists everywhere from comedy clubs to tv networks to high schools. None of this has ever kept women from being funny, of course, but the substance of their humor continues to be subject to the judgment of men, who have historically deemed themselves arbiters of what’s funny, not to mention who’s funny.
Simply put, a woman who makes jokes—much like a woman who seeks public office—steps outside the bounds of traditional femininity. So when it comes to women using humor in the realm of politics, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Ann Richards herself recognized that having a flair for the witty remark was a mixed blessing. Early in her career, she received numerous invitations to speak at roasts, and even though she enjoyed these appearances, she realized the potential pitfalls. As she wrote in her 1989 autobiography Straight from the Heart:
I was always worried because there is a general feeling that if you’re funny you’re not serious. People don’t know how many brain cells it takes to be funny…. Humor is a powerful tool. It clears the air. Once you laugh, your mind is opened and then you are able to hear the other things that are being said to you.
Richards’s statement encapsulates a primary issue facing women in politics: Humor can be an extremely effective political tool, but a woman who wields it risks appearing frivolous or ditzy. Rather than denoting confidence and power, a woman’s sense of humor can also be radically misunderstood, and even used against her.
Experts on humor have long recognized its power to put people at ease and to make them more receptive to the humorist’s point of view. In recent elections, candidates perceived as stiff and too cerebral (hi, John and Al!) came under media attack for lacking personality. Every candidate knows it’s important to smile for the cameras because frowns and serious looks don’t go over well. Toss gender into the mix and things get more complicated. A woman who is perceived as too serious, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, gets called a ballbreaker; a woman who is too funny, as Ann Richards worried, might not be taken seriously. Male politicians have to strike a balance between the comic and the serious, but women, as the saying about Ginger Rogers’s dancing goes, have to do it backwards and in high heels.
For those seeking the highest political office in this country, a sense of humor is essential for currying public favor. Gerald Gardner, who collects examples of presidential humor, asks in his 1986 book All the Presidents’ Wits: The Power of Presidential Humor, “Why is it that if a man [sic] wishes to hold the most demanding position on the face of the earth, he must be able to tell a joke?” He cites Ronald Reagan’s comedic ability as one of the reasons for the Gipper’s enormous popularity, and underscores the tendency of American voters to choose personality over substance. “A sense of humor,” according to Dwight D. Eisenhower, “is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” Former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, in his 1998 collection Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House, recounts how in his political life, “there were countless occasions…when a timely one-liner broke the tension at a tough negotiation and got everyone moving toward a solution.”
Many female politicians have been equally adept at using wit to frame key issues. Frances “Cissy” Farenthold, who served two terms in the Texas legislature in the early ’70s, summed up her position on affirmative action thus: “I am working for the time when unqualified blacks, browns, and women join the unqualified men in running our government.” Bella Abzug, the first Jewish congresswoman, whose 1970 campaign slogan was “This Woman’s Place Is in the House—the House of Representatives,” made a similar point about gender equity: “Real equity is going to come not when a female Einstein is recognized as quickly as a male Einstein, but when a female schlemiel is promoted as quickly as a male schlemiel.” The noted feminist and civil rights activist/attorney Florynce Kennedy had a knack for condensing important issues into one-liners and for staving off opposition with laughter—a talent her colleague Gloria Steinem called “verbal karate.” In a memorial piece on Kennedy’s life in a 2001 issue of Revolutionary Worker, Steinem recalls that when she and Kennedy were on the lecture circuit together, they were often asked by men in the audience if they were lesbians (“Why else,” Steinem speculates on the views of the questioners, “would a white and black woman be colleagues?”). Kennedy was quick to respond with the oft-quoted line: “Are you my alternative?” Other Kennedy quips are equally memorable: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”; “Freedom is like taking a bath: You got to keep doing it every day”; “If you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up space.” Although she never held a political office, People magazine called her “radicalism’s rudest mouth.”
The staying power of Kennedy’s wit points out that material like this can help fuel revolutions. But as increasing numbers of women enter the mainstream of political life (and as women seek ever higher office), it’s well worth taking a closer look at what happens when political women get funny. The wry former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, in a 1990 interview with Jim Lehrer, described how she appeared to the public during the early stages of the 1984 campaign: “I was on television virtually every night of the week. But if you watched what I was on doing, it was 15 seconds, 30 seconds—Gerry Ferraro with a zinger that hit either President Reagan or…Vice President Bush. The sad part of it was that the American public was getting the impression that’s all that I was capable of doing. I didn’t look very sensitive and they didn’t know me very well. The polls indicated that I was feisty, that I was tough, that I had a sense of humor, but [voters] weren’t quite sure if they liked me.”
The question of how to be tough (as politicians ought to be) yet remain sensitive (as women are required to be) is a dilemma for female politicians even without taking into account their ability to crack jokes. For every vote Ferraro might have earned with a witty remark like “I’d call [Reaganomics] a new version of voodoo economics, but I’m afraid that would give witch doctors a bad name,” she may very well have lost supporters who disapproved of her levity. She was on safer ground when she stuck to nontendentious subjects like technology (“It was not so very long ago that people thought that semiconductors were part-time orchestra leaders and microchips were very, very small snack foods”).
As first lady, Barbara Bush, the quintessential strong-yet-properly-feminine matron, could get by with an overtly feminist joke in a commencement address at Wellesley College: “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. I wish him well.” Less palatable was her earlier, widely circulated jab at Ferraro, whom she called something she “couldn’t say” that “rhymed with rich.” In her subsequent apology for a joke critics perceived to be inappropriately hostile—hardly ladylike—she underscored the original laugh line by saying she was sorry to have called Ferraro a “witch.”
But it turns out the first Bush first lady was no match for her daughter-in-law. At April 2005’s annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Laura Bush became an overnight success as a stand-up comedian, in a performance showcasing the one place women’s humor is welcome—firmly within the status quo. In a departure from the tradition of having the president give a comic speech—possibly because W. seems to find things like the search for wmds funny—the Bushes offered up a scripted scene that opened with Laura pretending to heckle her husband’s feeble attempts at humor. “Not that old joke—not again,” she “protested.” She then proceeded to push him aside and claim the podium, launching into a speech of her own.
In fact, the speech was written by Landon Parvin, whom reporter Elisabeth Bumiller has dubbed “joke writer to the stars of Washington.” Nevertheless, reporters were falling over themselves in giddy delight at just how funny Laura was. The Washington Post called it “Laura Bush’s Coming-Out Party,” and the Associated Press trumpeted “First Lady Steals Show.” No one came close to saying that her humor seemed threatening, even though her primary target was the nation’s Commander-in-Chief. Maybe that was because in reaction shot after reaction shot, George could be seen chuckling good-naturedly at his wife’s remarks and basking in the reflected glory of the audience’s exuberant response.
Laura’s opening salvo intentionally evoked the rhetoric of liberal feminism. She declared, “I’ve been attending these dinners for years and just quietly sitting there. Well, I’ve got a few things I want to say for a change.” In the extensive and almost universally favorable press coverage of her speech, reporters enthused about how good it was to see Laura stepping out of her husband’s shadow and overcoming her natural shyness. By simultaneously letting viewers in on the joke and encouraging them to accept its fictional premise, reporters accentuated the conservative thrust of the first lady’s “desperate housewife” routine. Everyone could see that she had her husband’s permission to say what she did; some reports even said the whole thing was his idea. In this sense, Laura could come off as not fully owning what she said.
Mark Katz, who has written jokes for Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Al Gore, among others, talked in a 2000 New York Times column about the importance of recognizing “the line” when writing humor for politicians. Landon Parvin clearly identified that elusive line, and the first lady was in no danger of crossing it in her “impromptu” speech. For example, she could describe a trip to Chippendales with Lynne “Dollar Bill” Cheney, Condi Rice, and Karen Hughes (noting that Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor were in the audience, Laura quickly implicated them in the action as well), and the incongruity of such highly placed girls gone wild—coupled with her own mild-mannered delivery of the punch line—could generate not outrage but hilarity. The only line that incited a mild degree of controversy concerned George’s city-slicker ways: “He’s learned a lot about ranching since that first year when he tried to milk the horse,” Laura told her audience, adding sweetly, “What’s worse, it was a male horse.” The Daily Show’s Stephen Colbert took this joke to its logical conclusion the next night, spelling out in a lurid parody exactly what it means to “milk” a male horse, culminating in a description of W. “bathing in a bucket of horse [bleep!].”
The comedy in both Laura’s initial delivery and Colbert’s lewd send-up turned on the notion that the first lady knew not what she said. While those on the left pondered whether right-wing fundamentalists ought to find Laura’s blue humor funny, those on the right sprang to her defense and accused critics of making too much of a lighthearted joke. Ultimately, even off-color humor from the first lady could be assimilated into her traditional feminine role, and her sentimental concluding remarks defused the entire performance: “So in the future, when you see me just quietly sitting up here, I want you to know that I’m happy to be here for a reason: I love, and enjoy being with, the man who usually speaks to you on these occasions.”
What the Bush team cleverly recognized is that humor would allow them to capitalize on Laura’s popularity, which at the time was almost double that of her husband, and that the sheer surprise value of her remarks would guarantee media attention. In the weeks following the dinner, the first lady was repeatedly asked if she would consider running for office. Her use of humor was perceived as a sign of strength, even though—and perhaps because—it hinged on assumptions about her subordination to her spouse.
The first lady’s remarks fit into the long-standing category of self-deprecating humor, with Laura offering up the first family as a target in a gesture intended to reassure the audience that they’re “just like us.” Gerald Gardner notes that self-deprecating jokes are particularly good choices for presidents: “However arrogant or egomaniacal a president may be, let him laugh at his age, his wealth, or his golf game, and we are ready to turn over the keys of the kingdom.” Our current president isn’t particularly good at this type of humor, however: He seems to have a hard time making fun of himself, and his attempts to do so come across as forced and unnatural. In his speech at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Bush led off with a joke about this very subject: “I was going to start off tonight by telling some self-deprecating jokes, but then I couldn’t think of any mistakes I’ve made to be self-deprecating about.” Naturally, his wife’s speech shied away from using humor to needle Bush on substantive grounds, despite the rich supply of material other comedians have found in his all-too-numerous errors and gaffes.
From Lucille Ball to Roseanne Barr, female comedians have relied on self-deprecating humor as their staple. Self-annihilating stories of physical shortcomings, domestic inadequacy, and sexual frigidity or promiscuity invite an audience to relate to and laugh with female comedians, but few funny ladies who use these tools achieve the same results that male humorists do, especially since so much of this kind of comedy, served straight, simply reinforces gender stereotypes. It’s hard not to wince, for example, at two of the rare examples of women’s political wit that Bob Dole includes in his collection. Margaret Chase Smith, who served four terms in the Senate and 32 years in Congress, was asked by a constituent, “What would you do if you woke up one morning and found yourself in the White House?” She replied, “I would go to the President’s wife and apologize, and then leave at once.” Equally painful is Eleanor Roosevelt’s joking statement on “campaign behavior for wives”: “Always be on time. Do as little talking as humanly possible. Lean back in the parade car so everybody can see the President.” Women’s self-deprecation can mirror too closely stereotypical assumptions about women’s inferiority to men.
Yet as much as female politicians need to be wary of being perceived as too aggressive, they can’t be seen as weak either. Authors Tolleson-Rinehart and Stanley argue that “political women…have had to walk a careful line: they must present themselves as at least ‘feminine’ enough not to raise any fears that they are not ‘womanly’; but at the same time they cannot be too stereotypically feminine or they will not be strong enough to lead.” It’s hard to walk that line, though, as the case of Geraldine Ferraro illustrates. Critics of Ferraro simultaneously accused her of being “strident” and questioned whether she would be tough enough to push the nuclear button. Gender stereotypes may be even harder to combat in wartime. The first George Bush could pay lip service to a “kinder and gentler nation,” but his son deliberately cast his own image in opposition to the “wimp factor” that allegedly worked against his dad.
If Hillary Rodham Clinton makes a bid for the presidency, all eyes will be on her as she grapples with how best to deploy humor. Often depicted either as a dragon lady or as a long-suffering martyr who stood by her man in spite of his infidelities, Rodham Clinton doesn’t have a reputation for being funny. She stepped out on a limb this summer when she mocked the president, saying, “I sometimes feel that Alfred E. Neuman is in charge in Washington.” Her immediate audience laughed at the comparison between Bush’s leadership and the Mad magazine icon’s catchphrase—”What, me worry?”—but she drew fire from many for being too harsh and, as one opponent put it, “insulting the president.” (Never mind that the comparison had circulated for years before Rodham Clinton made use of it.) It remains to be seen whether this joke will be held against her. What’s clear, though, is that she’s working to get the laughter on her side.
Attack humor, however, won’t be Rodham Clinton’s best friend, since it feeds into the image of her as a castrating bitch. Uncontroversial humor, or humor that attemps to deflate the negative stereotypes about her, will go a longer way toward refurbishing her image. But whatever choices Rodham Clinton makes, she—like other influential feminists, female politicians, and public intellectuals—has to avoid being viewed as humorless.
Laugh lines make terrific soundbites for politicians to feed the media. They have to be finely calibrated, however, in order to achieve their desired effect. For the foreseeable future, political women’s humor will have to be carefully wielded in order to dispel voter anxieties about powerful women while convincing voters that women have the confidence and competence to do the job. Getting voters to laugh with them may not be the only path to victory for women in politics, but if they can do this well, their audience is more likely to listen to what they have to say about matters of substance.