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Storytelling In The News: #80

Bush uses humor to make his case against Kerry

March 6, 2004

In these pages last week, we noted Mark Katz' advice to President Bush on the use of humor to make his case:

For George Bush, every joke should be smart. He should use humor to showcase a more cerebral wit in order to counter the perception he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

A reader has asked: what would be an example of such a joke? As it happens, there are already several possible examples in the public domain.

Bush's "joke" of February 23, 2004

A possible example could be his speech on February 23, 2004, at the Washington Convention Center, in a $1,000-a-person fundraising reception for the Republican Governors Association. At a time when the Democratic nomination was still being contested by Edwards, Sharpton and Kucinich, Bush said:

"The other party's nomination battle is still playing out. The candidates are an interesting group, with diverse opinions: for tax cuts and against them; for NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and against NAFTA; for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act; in favor of liberating Iraq and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."

It got a big laugh from the Republican audience, since it deftly characterized (whether accurately or not) the Democratic front-runner, Senator Kerry, as "a man without a core". It has a mild "surprise ending" in the Bush quote, since one is led to think that Bush is talking about the whole field of Democratic candidates until one gets to the punch line, when it turns out he's just talking about Kerry.

The tone of the joke is a marked departure from Bush's normal way of talking. As Karen Hughes, Bush's longtime adviser, says, the president usually has a "directness" that makes some people uncomfortable. "You've all heard him. Good versus evil. With us or against us,' Hughes says. "It's one of the things that I think makes Europe a little uncomfortable with him. It makes the Democrats a little uncomfortable, too. The Democrats' candidate for president has been having a little message clarity problem."

In the joke however, Bush portrays himself in an uncharacteristic frame of mind: tolerant, reflective, meditative, intellectual, surveying the scene, coolly, calmly, appraisingly and analytically, weighing the differences, the peculiarities and the inadequacies, with a nice touch of irony about the frailty of the human race in general and the Senator Kerry in particular. Thus he might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but this intervention has edge.

Is it funny? To Republicans, obviously yes. It got a big laugh from his Republican audience on February 23.

But the real test is: does it amuse Democrats and independents? Does it at least give them pause for thought and ask themselves: maybe we should examine Kerry's positions more closely? My own private unscientific polling of colleagues and friends shows a mixed reaction. Some got a chuckle from it. Others are so negative towards the president that they find it difficult to listen to anything he says, let alone laugh at his jokes.

Bush's "joke" of March 3, 2004

Bush and his advisers must think the joke is effective, since they soon tried it again in a slightly different format at a Bush-Cheney fundraiser in Los Angeles on March 3, the day after Kerry cemented his position as front-runner winning most of the primaries on Super Tuesday. Bush said:

"Last night, I placed a call to Senator Kerry. I told him I was looking forward to a spirited campaign. I congratulated him on his victory. This should be an interesting debate on the issues. He spent two decades in Congress; he's built up quite a record. In fact, Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue."

Once again, it got a big laugh from Republicans. But only time - and further polling - will tell whether these "jokes" are effective with the key audience - Democrats and independents.

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