You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

The Unfunny Election

If Barack Obama and John McCain end up facing each other in the general election this year, one particular special interest group will find itself unexpectedly discomfited: the comedy writers of America. Politically, these men and women may well support one or the other of the two candidates enthusiastically. But professionally, they will find an Obama-McCain contest a burden, for the simple reason that it is surprisingly difficult to make fun of either candidate. The result might well be the least entertaining presidential election in recent history. But also, perhaps, from a civic point of view, the healthiest.

The reasons for the two men’s relative immunity from mockery and satire are different. In Obama’s case, it begins with his enormously appealing public persona, and his obvious, heartfelt sincerity. Try mocking a candidate like this and you will probably end up looking mean-spirited and cynical. The racial factor contributes as well. Whites have a hard time publicly mocking brilliant, accomplished African Americans like Obama, for fear of seeming to draw on racial stereotypes.  It’s telling that while “Saturday Night Live,” routinely features  presidents and presidential candidates in its skits, and has done so since the days of Chevy Chase and Gerald Ford, it has never had one of its actors impersonate Obama. The one time a “Barack Obama” appeared on the show, last fall, it was the candidate himself, in a cameo. As for McCain, the most important reason is, of course, his heroism as a P.O.W. in Vietnam. Try mocking a man who has sacrificed as much for his country as McCain, and you end up looking not only mean-spirited, but positively unpatriotic.

The extent to which both Obama and McCain are impervious to the sort of mockery which proved so destructive to Al Gore or John Kerry has been obscured, in recent months, by the Hollywood writers’ strike--which has therefore, objectively, worked to both men’s disadvantage. After all, Hillary Clinton and the recently-departed Mitt Romney are anything but invulnerable to mockery and satire. Imagine what the skit-writers from “Saturday Night Live” could have done with Clinton’s “angry moment” in the New Hampshire debate, or Bill Clinton’s frantic attacks on Obama. And even though the smartest political satire on TV, “The Daily Show,” has been back on the air for a month, without its writers the comedy has suffered, with host Jon Stewart more  inclined to draw blood from Wolf Blitzer than from the candidates, or while staging a (hilarious and silly) mock-feud with Conan O’Brien. Hillary in particular should give thanks that the writers’ strike has decreased the number and intensity of barbs fired at her from late-night television.

From a comedic point of view, an Obama–McCain race is therefore likely to be quite a dull affair. But from a civic one, a relative lack of mockery and satire might come as a relief, given our recent experience. Of course, satire has always been part of the democratic process (think of the way Martin Van Buren was skewed as effete and ineffectual in the election of 1840). Still, the current media universe has increased its power and importance exponentially. As soon as our monstrous regiment of bloggers, talk-show hosts, late-night comics, and columnists identifies a trait in a candidate that makes him or her look like a figure of fun, they fall on it with all the subtlety, grace and charm of a group of third-grade bullies who have figured out that a classmate’s last name rhymes with that of an embarrassing bodily function. Whether it is Al Gore’s supposed serial mendacity, John Kerry’s rich-boy effeteness, or John Edwards’s alleged obsession with his hair, such a storm of mockery instantly develops that the mainstream media feels justified in covering it as a story, thereby giving it further play and further obscuring the candidate’s positions and qualifications. It hardly matters that the trait in question is usually either non-existent, or essentially irrelevant to how well the candidate would do as president. Late-night television comedy is only one part of this equation, of course, but a key part. The barbs first sharpened in the hands of the Lenos and Stewarts, and the team from “Saturday Night Live”, get repeated ad nauseam across the media landscape. It helps, incidentally, when the candidate in question seems to lack a sense of humor. In public, at least, Gore and Kerry, like Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, all come off as humorless, while Obama and McCain--like George W. Bush, at least when he was first introduced to a national audience--are perceived quite differently.

So, if you value politics mostly for its entertainment value, here is a good reason to mourn the loss of a Clinton-Romney matchup.  If Hillary gets the nomination, you will still be able to look forward to months of side-splitting routines from “SNL”’s Amy Poehler, portraying Clinton as a bulging-eyed control freak,  while regretting that Jon Stewart never had a chance to do a “separated at birth” routine with Romney and the android Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But if you value politics for other reasons, then an Obama–McCain race might be a welcome one, for reasons that have nothing to do with the two men’s own qualifications, but at least a little to do with the health of our democracy.

David A. Bell is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

By David A. Bell