Friday, October 19, 2007

Presidential Candidates Make Me Laugh

They really do. All of them.

Unfortunately, the kind of laugh that they provoke in me is a tired, knowing, cynical laugh. They make me laugh because by their very candidacy they are demanding that they be taken seriously. I mean, they seriously want to be President of the United States. They seriously want to be elected as leader of the most powerful nation on earth. They seriously want to be the point person for the nation to whom the free world looks for leadership. And they seriously want us to take them seriously.

We have to try, of course, because one of them is actually going to win, God help us.

Here’s what I find most funny about the entire situation: many of us will listen intently to what the candidates say, we will watch the debates, we will read the experts’ opinions, and we may even read position papers. We will evaluate what the candidates say about their positions on whatever issues are most important to us and then we will cast our votes. Now, most of us have set parameters within which our eventual choice must fit: social conservatives who think the family life of a candidate matters are not going to vote for Giuliani, small government advocates are not going to vote for Clinton, people who think that only Christians should be president and who don’t think that Mormons are Christians are not going to vote for Romney, and people who are sick and tired of Law & Order (the TV show, not the concept) are not going to vote for Thompson. Die-hard Democrats are not going to vote for a Republican and die-hard Republicans are not going to vote for a Democrat. Still, within whatever parameters we have set we will try our best to make an informed choice.

Then, when the next President takes office and does precious little of what he or she said he or she was going to do, we won’t be in the least bit surprised. We will say that it’s just par for the course. We will say, “That’s politics.” Or we will make excuses for him or her or we’ll blame it on Congress or on the media or on Iran or on Leprechauns or on a disturbance in the Force or on something.

But we’ll think that the situation is normal. That’s what is so funny. So why is there a tear in my eye?

That’s why today I am grateful to Stephen Colbert for throwing his hat in the ring. The comedian whose character channels Bill O’Reilly on his Comedy Central program The Colbert Report announced this week that he is a candidate for President of the United States. He furthermore announced that he will run only in his home state of South Carolina and that he will run on both the Democratic and Republican tickets.

I’m trying to figure out a way that I can vote for him. I live just across the Savannah River from the Palmetto State so there ought to be a way. Maybe I can establish temporary residency in North Augusta, SC. Maybe I can curry favor over there if I mention that my ancestor Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. (You can look it up; it’s right there among other Civil War legends.) But I digress.

It makes perfect sense to me that a comedian would run for President. Since all the candidates make me laugh anyhow, we might as well have one who means to make us laugh and who knows how to make us laugh.

Which brings me to Pat Paulsen. Now there was a comedian who knew how to run for President. I know that I have a few young readers so let me set the stage for you.

It was 1968. The United States was in utter turmoil. We were getting more and more involved in the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement was growing larger and larger. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Hair was long, skirts were short, and fuses were shorter. It was the year that Sen. Kennedy and Dr. King would be assassinated. The times, as Mr. Dylan had said, were a-changin’. President Johnson would, mainly because of Vietnam, decide not to seek a second term. There would be blood in the streets outside the meeting of the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The race would finally come down to Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Republican Richard Nixon, and Independent George Wallace. Nixon would win. The rest of that sad story is well known. (If you don’t know it, go rent the movie Dick—or All the President’s Men).

In the middle of all of that Pat Paulsen announced that he was running for President on the Stag Party ticket. Paulsen was a dead-pan comedian who was best known for his appearances on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. That show was constantly in trouble with the censors for its irreverent humor. Paulsen would offer editorials on the program that were brilliant parodies of the positions actually taken by politicians.

What made Paulsen so funny, even to my ten-years-old at the time way of looking at things, was that he presented his ludicrous comments in such a serious fashion (although he would sometimes insert a planned laugh at certain points). Even now I can juxtapose his approach with that of today’s politicians who also say ludicrous things in a serious way—but they really are serious. I say again: Pat Paulsen was brilliant.

I wish that Mr. Paulsen was still with us so that he could run again. I appreciate Mr. Colbert’s efforts, but he couldn’t carry Pat’s lunch pail. Colbert basically apes one commentator’s approach; Paulsen managed to skewer all politicians for all times. And in so doing, he spoke the truth.

Yep, presidential candidates make me laugh but they also make me cry.

I need a candidate who can make me laugh and give me hope.

To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel (gosh, I really am back in the ‘60s!): Where have you gone, Pat Paulsen? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo-woo-woo.

Thank you, and God bless America. Please.

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