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Senator McCain Isn't Funny, So Stop Encouraging Him

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As we approach the August vacation season, naturally our thoughts turn to President Bush who has a just-a-regular-guy penchant for both five-week paid vacations and participating in unrelated tomfoolery during times of crisis.

This week, for instance, as the stock market spazzed and the price of everything climbed higher; as disaster struck American soldiers in Afghanistan; and as more Americans lost their homes to foreclosures due to the effects of Reaganomics... President Bush played t-ball.

In the past, it's been guitar-strumming and cake-eating during hurricanes. It's been golfing while Bin Laden planned to attack inside the U.S. It's been pontoon-boating trips, Barney-Cam videos and hilarious slideshows during some of the bloodiest days of the Iraq occupation.

And during Tuesday's press conference, as the DJIA sank below 11,000 for the first time in years, here are some of the president's facial expressions while mumbling his way through questions about bank bailouts, lost savings and $5/gallon gasoline:

2008-07-18-bush_smirk_economy.jpg

The only explanations for these faces are, 1) the president doesn't take his job seriously -- like always, or 2) he's being tickled.

Undignified displays of grinning nonsense coinciding with times in which he ought to be acting like a president will hopefully be recorded as significant part of his legacy. To be fair, however, President Hoover was almost as bad -- participating in an All-American Grabasstic League exhibition game while the stock market crashed. (Historical sporting note: the Dale City "Blustery Pips" won the day, 32-10. However, their team leader, Festus "Long Whiskers" Pennypacker, suffered from tired blood and had to take three penalties for "infield respites." None of this is Hoover story is true.)

And now it's clear that the president's would-be Republican successor, Senator McJackie the McJokeman, will prove to be even less serious and dignified in the role of Smirker-in-Chief. If that were even possible.

Last week, in response to a serious question about Iran, the Republican presumptive nominee joked about killing Iranians with weaponized cancer. This week, it's news about a joke involving gorillas and rape.

"Did you hear the one about the woman who is attacked on the street by a gorilla, beaten senseless, raped repeatedly and left to die? When she finally regains consciousness and tries to speak, her doctor leans over to hear her sigh contently and to feebly ask, 'Where is that marvelous ape?'"

Get it? Women like to be beaten and raped. Hoo-hoo! In days past, it's been jokes about wife-beating, bombing Iran, Chelsea Clinton's looks, and Alzheimer's Disease. Based on these precedents, I can only imagine Senator McCain's forthcoming zingers about still-births, burn victims and Thalidomide.

But not unlike the president's overly jocular behavior during serious questions or serious crisis, for Senator McCain it's all about context and tone. How should a president behave in public? No one expects the presidency to be monastical of course. In fact, many of our greatest presidents were able to use comedy to their advantage, and more than a few of them knew how to make with the profanity. But, like anything, there's a time and place for such behavior. There's a context.

--The president isn't you and me. You and I can tell whatever joke we want whenever we want because we don't have to represent 300 million people on the world stage. Your personal behavior doesn't necessarily get passed on to posterity as a reflection of an entire era in American history. So if you want to tell that gorilla rape joke to your spouse or parents, have at it. If Senator McCain wants to tell a joke like that, he embarrasses more than just himself.

--The president ought to have good judgment. No shocker there. Judgment in this regard is the difference between, say, an invasion of Cuba leading to thermonuclear war or, on the other hand, a smarter, more sensible quarantine option. (Historians will forever hypothesize how Nixon, for instance, would have handled those 13 days.) Is certain behavior appropriate or obnoxious? If a candidate is unable to control himself and blurts out a joke about bestial rape or killing civilians despite the fact that there are reporters everywhere and he happens to be running for president, it goes a long way towards determining whether he's someone who we can trust to make snap decisions with global implications or whether he's simply a tweaking street loon who talks to invisible shadow people.

--The president should know the difference between funny and not funny, or else -- stay away from the comedy. A sense of humor doesn't literally mean "the ability to recite a joke." Anyone can repeat a joke. But politicians like Senator McCain have managed to accumulate a captive audience of reporters who have to laugh at his jokes or else be tossed out of the barbeque loop. Consequently, he can tell one of his awful jokes and everyone in the corp snarfs up their cole slaw. This reaction has thusly given the senator the false impression that he's funny, when he's really not. The gorilla rape joke, for example, is only funny in the context of, say, a larger bit about unfunny jokes -- or bad comics who try way too hard to be funny.

There was a classic episode of The Larry Sanders Show in which Hank, played by Jeffrey Tambor, guest-hosts the show. The first night during the opening monologue, the audience laughs along with him because he's genuinely nervous and humbled. However, the next night, the novelty of Hank is worn away due to his enormous ego and so he bombs. Then everything goes to hell when Hank, still in the monologue, calls the head writer "a hopeless retard" -- thinking it would get a laugh. Instead, the audience is shocked into silence until someone yells out, "You suck!" Artie (Rip Torn) stops the show and airs a Best of Larry in its place.

Artie's advice to Hank: "Now Hank, what have we learned here? When you're vulnerable and humble, people like you. When you act like an asshole, people tend to think of you as an asshole."

President Bush has been Hank for a long, long time. Senator McCain, if elected, will be far worse.

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