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Storytelling In The News: #106

Humor as a leadership tool

April 1, 2004

April 1 seems like a suitable date to explore the use of humor as a leadership tool. George W. Bush tried his hand at it on March 24, 2004, at the Hilton Washington, site of the 60th annual Radio & Television Correspondents' Association dinner.

Bush as Entertainer in Chief

President Bush opened his 10-minute remarks to the gathering with a reference to what he referred to as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "favorite show" on television which turned out to be . "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," Bush said.

Bush went on to poke at his own malapropisms before unveiling a slide show titled "White House Election Year Album" that had the crowd chuckling. Yes, there were a few jabs at the Democrats, including a couple of shots taken at Democratic challenger John Kerry.

Mostly, though, he put up dorky-looking pictures of himself. A recurring joke involved photos of the president in awkward positions -- bent over as if he's looking under a table, leaning to look out a window -- accompanied by remarks such as "Those weapons of mass destruction must be somewhere!" and "Nope, no weapons over there!" and "Maybe under here?"

Was Bush's joke funny or effective?

At the time of the joke, a crowd of about 1,500 politicians, journalists and celebrities generally laughed along with the president's presentation.

After the event, Democrats suggested that Bush's comedy skit about the search for weapons of mass destruction was "tasteless and insensitive". Noting that Bush had used the weapons issue to justify a war in Iraq in which nearly 600 Americans have died and more than 3,000 have been wounded, Democrats said the president went too far.

"It's a tragic attempt at comedy, because the price that has been paid for this endeavor has been an enormous one," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said in an interview. Lautenberg was among the first Democrats to issue a statement condemning the comments yesterday.

CNN, which ran a tape of Bush's bit on its morning show, reported that it generated critical e-mails from viewers, one of whom called it "stomach-turning."

The correspondents dinner often features the president as a lighthearted after-dinner speaker. That is the spirit in which Bush made his comments, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said yesterday: "It's traditional at events like this dinner for the president to poke fun at himself."

She noted that Bush also paid a tribute to the military, including a group of Special Forces troops who buried a piece of the World Trade Center in Afghanistan in tribute to those killed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Democrats and skeptics however appear to have humor theory on their side. The incongruity theory of humor suggests that humor involves not only pointing out an incongruity that in some unexpected way "makes sense": for the joke to be funny, it should suggest a point or moral that is not really dangerous or harmful. By pointing to a series of events that killed and wounded so many Americans and Iraquis, Bush's joke risks sliding over into tragedy, rather than comedy.

Moreover, it has been pointed out earlier in these pages that Bush's better tactic as a humorist is to emphasize humor that is rather intellectual, thus counteracting his image as "not being the sharpest knife in the drawer". By drawing attention to this very issue, Bush's joke risks having his image from being "an amiable dolt" to being "a dangerous dolt".

What are people laughing at?

Thus judging from late-night humor, Bush still wears a dunce cap, while Kerry is portrayed as strange-looking, stiff and humorless.

"President Bush admitted that his prewar intelligence wasn't what it should have been," Jay Leno said. "We knew that when we elected him."

As for Kerry, "his poll numbers are moving, donations are moving, endorsements are moving," Leno said. "The only thing not moving about John Kerry -- his hair. His hair does not move."

The Washington Post suggests that the musings of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien may have as much to do with shaping the candidates' public personas as a ton of newspaper stories, magazine features and cable arguments.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs has divined that Bush remains the biggest late-night target -- the butt of 213 jokes from Jan. 1 through March 9 -- compared with 53 for Kerry. Even in February, when Kerry was surging to the nomination, it was Bush hands down, 121 to 25.

"The president will always be the biggest butt of the jokesters," the center's Matthew Felling says.

But this is one contest where winning amounts to losing: 94 percent of the jokes about intelligence, and 89 percent about honesty, involved the president. Kerry drew nearly half the cracks aimed at a candidate's appearance.

Letterman said of Bush's campaign ads: "In one of the commercials you see George W. Bush for 30 seconds. In another commercial you get to see George W. Bush for 60 seconds. Kind of like his stint in the National Guard."

Leno however was appreciative of Bush's efforts at humor. He said that Oscar nominations had gone to Sean Penn, Jude Law "and, of course, George W. Bush for 'Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction.' "

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