Paul Greenberg

It seems former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter has undertaken a second career as a stand-up comic. He's now switching occupations the way he once switched political parties.

At 81, the longtime Republican then Democratic senator from Pennsylvania opened the other night at the well-named Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia. What better moniker for a club that hosts old pols full of hot air?

But what's this about a second career for Arlen Specter? Hasn't he always been something of a comic figure? Though not a very entertaining one.

Talk about a headliner, none of the distinguished politicians who try to be funny can rival deadpan Bob Dole just off the cuff. As in his classic line on seeing three former presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon -- at some White House reception or other. "There they are," he noted, "See no evil, hear no evil, and ... evil."

The man just couldn't help himself when presented with an opportunity to tell more of the truth than slicker pols thought prudent. When the Republicans swept into control of the U.S. Senate one year, he mused, "If we had known we were going to win control of the Senate, we'd have run better candidates."

If only more of our current leaders would level with us that way. We'd not only be better informed but better entertained. Whenever our current president delivers one of his little -- very little -- witticisms, you can almost see the ghostwriters' fingerprints on it.

Bob Dole with his crippled arm and bitter smile was entirely too whole, too sane, ever to be elected president of the United States. He has a sense of humor, especially about himself. Maybe humor, like the best cheese, needs age to ripen to its full flavor.

Humor is the test of gravity. No one devoid of a sense of humor can be trusted with serious matters. There is such a thing as a politician's being so serious it's hard to take him seriously. Which brings me to the odd man out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination: Ron Paul.

The other day two of his rivals -- Rick Perry and Mitt Romney -- took Dr. Paul to task for dismissing the threat of Iran's fast developing nuclear weapon. Yet the good doctor's reaction, or rather lack of one, to the prospect of Iran's mullahs with a nuke of their own shouldn't have shocked. Or even surprised. On the contrary, it was wholly predictable.

For the man is the walking, talking embodiment of America's isolationist psyche. Not to mention his being a money crank. It all goes together. Full of obsessions, he's devoid of humor.

The good doctor could have stepped right out of the late 19th century's assortment of third-party conspiracy theorists. They had an assortment of labels: populist, greenback, bimetallist ... but they all shared the same belief: The country had been taken over by some sinister conspiracy of the rich and powerful.

Both the Occupy Wall Street and tea party crowd can trace their political lineage back to those protest parties and that last great agrarian revolt against an over-industrialized, over-centralized, over-urbanized, over-modernized America.

Of course, Dr. Paul is opposed to America's playing a role in world politics, or even taking much of an interest in it. It just comes naturally, like his opposition to the Federal Reserve System. The man is all of a piece. An American type. Or, to be more specific, he's a piece of work.

Ron Paul's politics fit a familiar pattern, familiar at least to any student of modern American history. Ron Paul is but this year's embodiment of what historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics.

All he needs is a whiff of anti-Semitism and he would fit right in with Coin Harvey's world and worldview. A name now lost on most Americans, William Hope Harvey may have been the best-selling American author of his turn-of-the-century day. "Coin's Financial School," his tedious tract on what was than known as the Currency Question, had just enough truth in it to snare the unwary and make every man think of himself as an expert. Somebody in the know. The village savant who could see right through the machinations of both Wall Street and the Bank of England.

There was something in Coin Harvey's mostly crackpot theory that appealed to every American who felt his financial security, his social status, the whole of old America, slipping away. Just as so many Americans feel today.

When his presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, champion of the Old America, lost the watershed election of 1896 to the country's first modern president, William McKinley, Coin Harvey retreated to the Ozarks to build his fortress refuge at Monte Ne, which is now mostly under water to make room for a man-made lake.

The great cataclysm Coin Harvey feared never materialized, at least not in the way he'd predicted, but he did stick around till the 1930s to run for president on still another third-party ticket. Hard times are the health of strange economic theories.

Maybe when this year's presidential campaign-and-circus is history, too, Ron Paul can go on exhibit with the rest of the ruins at Monte Ne. For he shares with Coin Harvey one other trait, and it is the most dangerous of all: an utter humorlessness.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.