Jan 12

Ed Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisis

I was going to write about the use of jokes in politics and how political reporters never cover the subject for fear of sounding trivial. But then jokes suddenly starting happening everywhere.

The leader of Britain’s parliamentary opposition, Ed Milliband, made one of those doomed “relaunch” speeches last week which no one outside the political industry much noticed. An interview that morning intended to set the stage for the speech went awry when Milliband found himself being asked if he was too ugly ever to be elected Prime Minister.

Milliband’s looks may or may not be a liability but he has bigger problems. He never seems to find anything funny and never makes any jokes anyone can remember and retell. Plenty of leading politicians are born without a sense of humour, but the smart ones have that corrected. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t naturally hilarious and had to have jokes explained to her. But she had a speechwriter (the theatre director Ronnie Millar) who was funny and who, as someone reminded me the other night, carried a small notebook everywhere in which he recorded lines that he could use.

Milliband shares this humour-deficit with the strange collection of people currently slugging it out (“mud-wrestling for dwarfs” one commentator called it) for the Republican presidential nomination in the US. John Dickerson of Slate reflects here the Great Republican Humour Crisis and on what the presence or absence of gags tells you about politicos. And his piece has jokes. My favourite is the self-deprecating story told by a now-forgotten man called Mo Udall. Canvassing, Udall walks into a barber’s shop and introduces himself as the local candidate who’s asking for their votes. “Yeah,” replies the barber, “We were just laughing about that.”

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Apr 10

Dead Man Walking

What tests a political leader in an open system is how he or she reacts when something goes pear-shaped, as it always will. On the campaign trail, endless, intense, tightly-scheduled days when the candidate gets increasingly tired and hoarse, things go wrong more often.

When a missile struck the Barrack Obama campaign, what happened? Hardly an eyelid moved. He was Doctor Cool. The message is not just one of calm purposefulness to the world in general but to the candidate’s team. Obama’s body language said to those closest to him: nobody even thinks about blinking. We deal with it, whatever it is, then we stop dealing with it and move on. Saying little and saying it only once takes nerve.

The small tragedy of Gordon Brown’s reaction to the voter from Rochdale was not what happened when the Prime Minister climbed into his car but what followed after his “bigot” remarks had gone global. The Labour campaign have agonised about getting the “real” Gordon Brown across to voters; attaching a lapel mike was one small way of making that happen. Brown’s ticking off his aides for the “disaster” was recognised by his team because they knew it was the truth. “Authentic, at least,” said one long-suffering Brown aide familiar with mood swings from the Prime Minister. A fit epitaph.

And then Brown could not even exercise the self-mastery to keep his apology short. This mistake is well caught by Matthew Parris in this morning’s Times.

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