Sunday, October 21, 2012

Laughing all the way to the White House


Laughing all the way to the White House

M.J. Akbar

On which occasion were Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the two claimants for the White House, more accurate? When they were making claims amid amateur posturing during the second Presidential debate on Tuesday 16 October, or when they were posing as jolly back-slappers 72 hours later at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner hosted by the Roman Catholic Church in New York? You can rest assured that there was much more truth in their made-up gags, and the fact that they were guests of a church had nothing to do with the level of virtue.

The joke has one enormous advantage over a claim; most often, it is about the other, not yourself. Every professional will confirm that it always helps to throw in a couple of gags against oneself. People think that those who can laugh at themselves have the right to laugh at others. But there was nothing spontaneous about the Obama-Romney laugh-in. Every word and line had been carefully vetted for the effect it would have on votes. It was not only the sally that had been thought through, but also the potential response to the opponent’s riposte. As in any drama, the main characters on the stage were the last ones to get the script.

As it happened, the best joke of the evening came when Obama laughed at himself. His appalling, disdainful languor in the first debate had turned the momentum in Romney’s favour, so he explained why he was feeling full of pep this time around: “I was really well rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate.” That was some more balm on self-inflicted scars. It also made him seem a bit human.

There are innumerable differences between Obama and Romney, but there is one thing that they have in common. Both are by nature patrician. Romney can hardly disguise his disdain for those who do not live in the comfort zone of a good income. Obama’s pride in his intellectual superiority is so obvious it bristles through his superior demeanour. Romney is distant from the voter; Obama is aloof from his opponent. The election will probably rest on who is perceived as less worse in the subconscious space where the undecided voter makes up his mind.

A narrow election requires management of both clinical issues and the volatility that can change popular sentiment overnight. Jokes are a good way of serving this dual purpose. And so Romney opened up the economic debate with a scalpel when he said, “He [Obama] knows how to seize a moment...And already he has a compelling new campaign slogan: you’re better off now than you were four weeks ago.” Obama had come prepared with reinforcement for his principal campaign line, Romney’s declared and undeclared wealth: “Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in mid-town. I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in mid-town.”

I wonder how much the gag-writers were paid for writing such lines. I hope they charged the earth. After all, the future of the world depends on who cracks a better joke.

Perhaps the world should concentrate on first-gasp debates in the Republican primaries rather than this last-gasp shootout to guess what might be in store. There was a time, only months ago, when these three candidates were front-runners: Rick Perry, governor of Texas, Michele Bachman, and even the silly Herman Cain. Perry admitted during a debate that he did not know if Pakistan had nuclear weapons or not; and Cain thought China did not have any! Bachman believed that slavery had ended in the USA with the declaration of independence in 1789.

It would be wrong to condemn the whole Republican Party for the stupidity of a few, but it still says something about the party that such men and women could even be in the reckoning. Perry, for a couple of weeks, was a favourite. This is not merely isolationist in political spirit; this is information deficit of a dangerous kind. The fact that Romney laboured, and swayed from one compromise to another, in order to defeat such meagre competition tells us something about how far Republicans have lurched into a beguiling unreality.

Obama has learnt very quickly that knowledge of the world is not sufficient to keep you leader of the world. Americans, like any other voters, measure their comfort levels against their own experience, rather than the woes of Greece or the contradictions of China. Obama entered the White House because he raised aspiration to phenomenal levels. There was no realistic way he could achieve what he promised. He is vulnerable.

If Obama wins, it will not be because of what he achieved, but because of what the Republicans promise to do, particularly on gender issues. His hopes rest on women. Fortunately for Obama, women have a more sensible sense of humour than men.

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