Are we asked now to elect the comedian-in-chief, or what? The "a-ha!" moment of insight has morphed into the ha-ha moment of interpretation. We've advanced from obsession with Hillary's cleavage to revulsion at her cackle. She once told reporters traveling with her, "You guys keep telling me to lighten up and be fun." She thought we were aching for a laugh track.
Bill Clinton goes on and on with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" about what a great one-liner his wife delivered in a Democratic debate. "I thought that the moment was great," he said. "I thought it was the defining moment of the debate." Bill's defining moments are not necessarily the moments the rest of us relish.
Rudy Giuliani's comedy routine with a cell phone and his wife as straight woman is no better. We could update a famous line as first delivered by Molly to Fibber McGee in the classic radio show of the '40s. "'taint funny, Giuliani."
Fred Thompson is berated on the front page of the New York Times for not lighting sparks: "He told no jokes." The poor guy. He not only got no laughs, he had to beg for polite applause.
Politics is always about performance and never more than now, with the media, redefined, stretching across airwaves, television networks and the Internet. But do we really need politicians to activate our funny bones? If so, we could dispense with public-opinion polls and install a laugh-o-meter on the telly and let the best joke win.
Everybody likes a good joke told well, and if it reflects spontaneous real wit, all the better. But Hillary and Rudy are canned, a guy and a doll condescending to the voter with a short attention span. There's no question that the guitar-playing, wise-cracking Mike Huckabee, the onetime Baptist preacher and former governor of Arkansas, has moved up in the polls because he's occasionally entertaining. (The best preachers usually are.) Getting Republicans to laugh is a formidable accomplishment, particularly now that Republicans don't have a lot to laugh about.
Because most of us demand a sense of humor to humanize presidents, unfunny things can pass for humor in Washington. That's why presidents (with good script writers) go out of their way to laugh at themselves at least once or twice. George W. Bush entertained one press dinner a few years ago with a slide of himself looking under the furniture in the Oval Office, saying: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere."
Gerald Ford, a good athlete as a young man, was mimicked mercilessly by Chevy Chase on "Saturday Night Live" as a clumsy oaf after he slipped walking down the steps of Air Force One. He joined in the spirit of the moment -- falling down mimicking Chevy Chase falling down mimicking him falling down.