A funny thing didn’t happen on the way to the White House-or, for that matter, 24 Sussex

Allan Fotheringham November 15 1976

A funny thing didn’t happen on the way to the White House-or, for that matter, 24 Sussex

Allan Fotheringham November 15 1976

A funny thing didn’t happen on the way to the White House-or, for that matter, 24 Sussex

Allan Fotheringham

It seems impossible to believe, but this has been something worse than the dullest American election since Alf Landon hung up his ennui. As a reporter who took a mercifully short dip into the Presidential bore, it was apparent that the 1976 campaign for the world’s highest elected office also marked the death of humor as a facet of politics. When Mrs. Walter Mondale was forced to apologize publicly for her harmless line that “the Democrats do it to their secretaries, the Republicans do it to the country,” we knew that something fine and decent had gone out of our lives. Mark the tombstone. Order the wreath. Politics has become too serious to joke about.

The apology, of course, was simply the final one in a campaign marked chiefly by the number and groveling intensity of the public confessionals. Jimmy (In His Heart He Knows Your Wife) Carter apologized for knowing that Hugh Hefner existed. The gormless Earl Butz, proving at last that there is someone more square than G. Ford himself, lost his job over the Elks club witticism that blacks wanted only tight parentheses, loose shoes and a warm toilet. Poor old Butz had previously been in deep trouble for recycling the line that Pope Paul should stay out of the birth control debate because “he no playa da game, he no maka da rules.” The fact that a huge proportion of Catholics in North America and Europe agree with that observation— as witness their disobeying the Vatican’s strictures on birth control—is ignored.

The head of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, General George Brown, was forced to grovel by the nervous White House for saying the British armed forces are composed mainly of “generals, admirals and bands”—a fact any fan of Monty Python knows to be true. The pomposity of the electoral process is unbounded. Lawrence Peter, the genius who invented the Peter principle, once said that “the reason the infighting in campus politics is so vicious is because the stakes are so small.” The reason humor is now verboten in U.S. politics is because the stakes are so large.

We should have been prepared for this bad news, naturally, considering the dreadful state of the new endangered species—political wit—in recent years. Ponderous Ike, right out of the golf club locker room, naturally gave birth to the humorless Nixon, who then begat Jerry Ford. The interregnum of the elegant JFK wit obviously was too good to last. Adlai Stevenson, as we know (“an editor is someone who separates the wheat from the chaff— and then prints the chaff’) killed himself at

the polls with his wit. A man once rushed up after a speech and said it was the finest speech he had heard in a lifetime and would garner the vote of every thinking American. “That won’t do,’’-Stevenson replied. “I need a majority.”

There was some faint hope with the roughhewn ranch humor of LBJ. His advice that Ford was “so dumb he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time” we now know to be true, except he didn’t say

“walk” in his original phrase. White House reporters cleaned it up for him. Ford has to grunt, visibly, in attempting to deliver a witticism and Carter displays that unctuous quality that gives the impression telling a joke is a burden that must be quickly discarded. Never has so wide a smile concealed such a small sense of humor.

What the Americans do with the English language, supposedly, is their own business, but the subject of our trepidation is that the creeping paralysis of the funnybone will stumble across the border—if it already hasn’t overwhelmed us. One has only to look at the Liberal front bench to realize that it encompasses all the jollity of a herd of undertakers. As a collective, they view unveiling of wit in public about on the same level of achievement as dropping one’s pants. Levity is the original sin. It could be, granted, that the Liberals at present are funny enough in themselves. Could anything be more hilarious than the Orion? Anything more ludicrous than a

government being staggered by the loss of Jimmy Richardson? Does Larry Zolf really script their moves? And then there are the distributors of unconscious humor. Does it demonstrate something about Canada that last April 1, backbench Socred MLA Patricia Jordan, responding to a message left on her desk, rose and asked the BC legislature to welcome a visitor in the Gallery, “Miss Connie Lingus”?

One does not demand, understand, a Churchill—calling Clem Attlee “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” (Lady Astor: “If 1 were your wife, I’d put arsenic in your coffee.” Churchill: “If I were your husband. I’d drink it.”) We are not so foolish to demand an Earl of Sandwich, circa 1763: “Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox.” And Wilkes: “That must depend, my lord, upon whether I first embrace your lordship’s principles or your lordship’s mistresses.” All one asks is some small evidence that we haven’t deserted our British parliamentary heritage entirely and have been swallowed by the American gun-shy trend. There hasn’t been a decent wit in the Liberal front bench since Jimmy Sinclair and Jack Pickersgill left. Trudeau has wit, but he has no sense of humor. The Irish—witness Shaw, and Wilde, Behan—have wit, which is directed at others. The English have a sense of humor, which is directed at themselves. Robert Stanfield has a sense of humor. Trudeau has never acquired it. Joe Clark, on the other hand, has been formed in youth so much by Diefenbaker emulation that his best lines are elaborate, rococo creations, built like a verbal carpenter, that have to be heard to be appreciated. They do not translate well into print and are one reason why young Clark appears so strangely old-fashioned.

The sterile nature of Ottawa at the moment is not enhanced by the fact that since the departure of The Globe and Mail's George Bain, there is no true resident wit to feast on the daily farce. The press, as usual, keeps its best lines for private consumption. There is wit in Ottawa but— among politicians and scribes—it tends to disappear down a glass. In naked public? Humor has gone into the closet. It has disappeared underground, replacing pot and porno movies as the embargoed items in our life. The only worse condition that humor could be in is if it carried a Rhodesian passport. The first Presidential election in which candidates were forced to apologize for being humorous recalls the little English lady who confessed that she never voted, “because it only encourages them.”