Of course, John McCain isn't exactly a merchant of mirth. He didn't like the cartoon either, or so he said. Although his usual disregard for politically correct reverence is refreshing, his humor often seems not offbeat, but off-a-beat. Spontaneous jokes, such as his singing "Bomb-Iran-bomb-bomb-bomb," are actually less funny than the fact of his telling (or performing) them. Does he get it?
When I hear McCain "being funny," I'm reminded of a booklet of after-dinner jokes my father compiled to help pay his college tuition. The World War II-vintage jokes simply aren't amusing anymore. They belong to another time and place, another set of cultural markers, the common understanding of which is crucial to humor.
What's missing -- and much missed -- are the timeless, biting quips of politicians past who put the "rip" in riposte. Classy, biting and pandering to no one, these elder statesmen knew something about language -- and American attitudes -- that we seem to have forgotten.
Chris Lamb, a College of Charleston (S.C.) journalism professor and cartoon historian, reminds us with his recent political-comeback collection, "I'll Be Sober in the Morning," that the wicked retort is invariably more effective than righteous indignation. A couple of sample anecdotes:
Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, told that he couldn't play golf at a Chevy Chase, Md., country club because it was restricted, replied: "I'm only half Jewish, so can't I play nine holes?"
U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was giving a speech in Dallas when a heckler demanded to know the ambassador's beliefs. Replied Stevenson: "I believe in the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of ignorance."
There's no better tonic -- nor better defuser of enemy bombs -- than humor. How refreshing it would have been had Obama merely pointed to the New Yorker cartoon and said: "He didn't get my ears right."
With a deft trip off the tongue, the cartoon and the baseless controversy would have been rendered impotent, revealed as what they were: laughable.
It's not too late. Humor us.