Getting the Last Laugh

Suzanne Fields

10/8/2007 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

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.

But humor is riskier for Hillary than for a man. Sexual stereotypes are hard to shake. A woman's belly laugh (tummy laugh?) is often either inauthentic or vulgar. And isn't that just like a man?

John Dickerson of Slate magazine calls her cackle her "tell," after the clue that suggests a poker player is bluffing. It's a signal, a cover-up, as "in all candor," or "frankly," or "clearly," a clue that something is coming that is neither candid nor frank and certainly not meant to be clear. "Nixon had lots of tells," he writes, "his tense smile, the pod of sweat on his upper lip -- it was as if his tiny little truth instinct was trying to break free any way it could." We look for Hillary's "tell" when she talks about her latest health care plan. Laughter can be the best medicine, after all.

The humor gap between men and women can be seductive. Nothing makes a man feel more manly than when he gets the girl to laugh. She makes him feel good about himself. "I'm talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth," Christopher Hitchens writes in Vanity Fair. Was he describing Hillary, or not?

Probably not. I prefer to think reporters and pundits make a big deal of Hillary's cackle because it's a side of her we haven't seen and we wonder why she's showing it now. Like everything else about her, motives are invariably questioned. With her polls climbing, she's got reason to cheer and be cheered, but it's way too early to tell who will get the last laugh.