01/01/2012 12:28 am ET Updated Mar 01, 2012

God, Human Folly, and Laughter

There is a story, now somewhat legendary, that John Kennedy once gave as a birthday present to his friend and court jester Dave Powers a silver mug with this engraving:

Only three things are real: God, human folly, and laughter. Since we can do nothing with the first two, we must do what we can with the third.

Serious people increasingly find American politics an exhibition of human folly. And, though certain conservative forces have sought for some time to insert God into the equation, it borders on sacrilege to lay at His doorstep this human folly brought on as much by the God-politicizers as anyone.

Arguably the most profound political question of our time is how to treat with the ultimate seriousness it deserves a political process that seems to wish to spiral downward with almost demented insistence. Great leaders, including great presidents, inevitably have their flaws. This is so because they are humans and thus subject, to greater or lesser degrees, to errors of judgment and performance.

But what can account for the virtual disappearance of greatness in presidents, senators, members of Congress, governors and others? Thoughtful observers have sought to explain this by combining the disappearance of privacy, an intrusive media, exorbitant campaign costs, and the overall loss of dignity and respect for leadership. It goes without question that many of the best, the most capable, the most honorable people in our society shun elective and, in too many cases, even appointive office.

Is it possible today to be a visible public servant and retain a sense of honor, dignity, and self-respect? All the leveling forces at work in our society would seem to answer no.

To follow the Kennedy prescription, then, is to resort to laughter. And many are doing so. Edward R. Murrow has been replaced by John Stewart and Walter Cronkite by Stephen Colbert. Thus laughter is not only the best medicine, it is the most effective way of responding to human folly on a political scale.

Students of American history know this is not without precedent. Ridiculous eras in times past have always produced a Will Rogers or even a W. C. Fields. Such figures have served our nation well and enabled us to laugh our way through tough times. But, sooner or later, reality requires us to confront our conditions and devise solutions or find those who can. When the laughter dies, as inevitably it must, we are still faced with unemployment, homelessness, hunger, and sickness.

For many of us, politics is not the art of making the rich richer in the hope they will dispense a farthing or two in the beggars cup or the church collection plate. A thousand points of light do not begin to dent the misery abroad today in every American city and throughout our countryside. Politics, to paraphrase one of Plato's dialogues, is the art of caring for souls.

So, while witnessing widespread human folly and praying that a kind God will somehow raise up great leaders, we must laugh. But, as the great bards of history have demonstrated the proximity of comedy and tragedy, let us late at night in the privacy of our own dwellings shed a tear for those whom Fortune has not favored, for the impoverished child who has yet to learn the cause of our laughter.

~ Kittredge, Colorado