Cynics inside and outside of Washington, D.C., often say, "Congress is a joke." Dean L. Yarwood, a political science professor, has a variation on that theme. For Yarwood, author of "When Congress Makes a Joke: Congressional Humor Then and Now," Congress is a place to study jokes. Find out which members over the years have been naturally gifted comedians (seriously).
By Steve Weinberg|November 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM
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“When Congress Makes a Joke,” By Dean L. Yarwood Rowman & Littlefield, 161 pages, $23.95 Cynics inside and outside the Beltway are used to saying that “Congress is a joke.” Dean L. Yarwood, a political science professor, has a variation on that theme. For Yarwood, author of “When Congress Makes a Joke: Congressional Humor Then and Now,” Congress is a place to study jokes. Within the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, a few members have been naturally gifted comedians. Take former Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz. Having lost vision in one eye after a childhood accident, Udall felt comfortable citing that infirmity to loosen up a tough crowd on the House floor or in committee sessions. “Sammy Davis, the famous entertainer, lost an eye in an accident and converted to Judaism,” Udall would begin. “One time he went golfing, and someone asked him ‘Sammy, what is your handicap?’ Sammy said, ‘Handicap? Man, I’m a one-eyed Negro Jew, do I need one?’ During my presidential campaign, I would add, ‘Handicap? I’m a one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona. You can’t find a higher handicap than that.” Along with Udall, Yarwood singles out these other members of Congress as especially talented at making colleagues laugh: Rep. Samuel S. Cox, D-Ohio and later New York, who retired in 1885; Rep. James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark, D-Mo., who retired in 1921; Sen. James E. Watson, R-Ind., who retired in 1933; Sen. Alben W. Barkley, D-Ken., who retired in 1956; Sen. Alexander Wiley, R-Wis., who retired in 1963; Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., D-N.C., who retired in 1974; and Rep. Brooks Hays, D-Ariz., who retired in 1959. Each of those politicians wrote a book focused upon or at least mentioning the role of humor in political life. The humor of Udall and his naturally funny predecessors was often personal, and self-deprecating, at that. The master quipsters understood that when members of Congress ventured beyond those narrow boundaries, an unwanted backlash might result. Yarwood cites this comment by Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., during the 2002 election campaign: “I’m the number one target of the White House. Since they can’t get Osama bin Laden, they’re going to get me.” Personal? Yes. Self-deprecating? No. Humorous? Maybe, depending upon the politics of the audience member. Wisely employed to help win votes? Probably not. As University of Missouri faculty member Yarwood comments, Republican operatives issued a press release terming Carnahan’s comment “despicable” and “a slap at the armed forces fighting in Afghanistan.” Even though the Senate seat Carnahan wanted had indeed been targeted for special attention by Republicans, she felt she needed to apologize for her glib remark. Why? Yarwood found himself wondering. “What is there about humor that makes politicians feel as though they need to back off?” Part of the answer to “Why?” is that politicians, perhaps the humorless ideologues most of all, understand that jokes are “an unstable element and can blow up in one’s face, causing inestimable damage.” The rewards can outweigh the risks, however. Members of Congress who can banter with journalists, who can make reporters and editors laugh, often receive a “pass” from those same journalists, on the ground that an entertaining politician cannot be all bad. Hey, read this book. Study Yarwood’s interesting, plausible theories about and classifications of congressional humor. Boil with anger while consuming the chapters about how congressional humor has demeaned African-Americans and women. But for the remainder of the review, how about loosening up and simply enjoying some of the treasures Yarwood has uncovered:
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