Visiting Great Britain after the Revolutionary War, the venerated soldier Ethan Allen would frequent English toilets adorned with portraits of George Washington, which had been hung by disgruntled members of the war’s losing team. Mischievously asked if he had noticed the curious décor, Allen affirmed that it was all very appropriate: “There is nothing that will make an Englishman shit so quick as the sight of General Washington.”
Historically accurate or not, Abraham Lincoln quite enjoyed that story, and would regale audiences with it at regular intervals during his presidency. He is depicted doing so to members of his Cabinet in a scene from Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
I cannot speak for you, but I find it very difficult to trust anyone who does not possess a serviceable sense of humor—doubly so for those in power.
Humor suggests intelligence and sophistication—indispensable qualities in anyone worth sharing time and space with—as well as a generally well-rounded sanity and sense of perspective. As no less an authority on world affairs than comedian Lewis Black has observed, the evil of groups such as al Qaeda and the Taliban is partly explained by their inherent humorlessness. Anyone with even the most rudimentary sense of irony would cast a skeptical eye toward an ideology that promises sex as a reward for suicide.
The fact of Lincoln’s own lighter side—so well-concealed in most history books—is an essential one precisely because of the seriousness of the time he occupied and shaped.
We Americans have this unfortunate impression that wit and lightheartedness is neither necessary nor particularly appropriate in epochs of great consequence, be it the Civil War or the weeks following 9/11, when Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter proclaimed, “It’s the end of the age of irony.”
This assumption is manifestly wrong, and we are extremely fortunate that this is so.
In Lincoln, we see the president telling stories and jokes as a means of disarmament, as he attempts to calm tensions amongst his staff, as well as to raise morale and generally relax the mood. In times of great stress, when monumental decisions must be made from which horrible consequences could result, these are hardly trivial skills to possess.
For Lincoln himself, characterized invariably as the most melancholy of men, humor was foremost among the tools he used to right himself from fits of depression and despair that, left unchecked, might have crippled him and thus the nation.
Anyone who has ever attended a Jewish funeral understands comedy’s power to sooth and console. The adage that “laughter is the best medicine” might not be true in all circumstances, but its underlying sentiment surely is.
In politics, fits of gaiety further serve to remind us that our leaders are human. In a positively spellbinding piece of video scraped off the cutting room floor, for instance, we see Richard M. Nixon in the moments before announcing his resignation—surely the most painful few minutes of his career—looking relaxed, cheerful and, at times, outright giddy, yukking it up with the camera crew, hoping they won’t catch him picking his nose.
As Ted Kennedy once said, “We have learned that it is important to take issues seriously, but never to take ourselves too seriously.”
We assume, as I began to say, that the Great Moments in U.S. history were made by men so wrapped up in the significance of their actions that reverent solemnity infected every molecule of breathing space, with humor of any sort being unceremoniously crowded off the stage.
The reason we think this—indeed, the reason many of us behave this way during landmark events in our own lives—springs from the fear that making light of dark moments will somehow cheapen them. That we might embarrass ourselves and offend others, and be seen as disrespectful and slight. As we all know, comedy performed in the wrong way by the wrong person can have exactly this effect.
Done in the right way, however, a strong sense of humor demonstrates precisely the sort of ease and confidence that heavy times so desperately require. It is a cue from Lincoln, among so many others, that we would do well to take (so to speak) with the utmost seriousness.