When politicians are comedians
By CHRIS LAMB
College of Charleston
Special to SC Statehouse Report
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DEC. 7, 2007, Charleston, S.C. -- In October, Stephen Colbert announced on his comedy program, "The Colbert Report," that he would be a candidate for the presidency. Colbert introduced his campaign with all of the cheap gimmickry of a seasoned politician, entering the television studio pulled by a bicycle pedaled by Uncle Sam. Colbert then propped his feet on a bale of hay and cracked open a beer bottle to demonstrate he was "an average Joe."
It would be easy to question Colbert's sincerity. But the 43-year-old satirist didn't come to his decision lightly. His announcement, he admitted, came after many anxious minutes.
"After nearly 15 minutes of soul-searching, I have heard the call," he said.
Colbert's candidacy challenged traditional presidential campaigns. For one thing, he said he was running as a Republican and a Democrat - or a Republicrat. Secondly, he said he planned only to run in South Carolina, testing the old political maxim, "As South Carolina goes, so goes southern North Carolina and parts of eastern Georgia."
Colbert's candidacy was aborted when the South Carolina Democratic Party refused to put the comedian's name on the ballot. Party leaders complained Colbert would make a mockery out of the political process. When pressed further, they admitted they could make a mockery of the political process without any help from an outsider.
South Carolina, traditionally, prefers its politicians to be punch lines and not comedians. There have, of course, been exceptions.
The last comedian who ran for the presidency was another South Carolinian, US Sen. "Fritz" Hollings. During his presidential run in 1984, Hollings and the other Democratic candidates were discussing their qualifications before a crowd of voters. After US Sen. John Glenn droned at length about his historic orbit as an astronaut in 1962, Hollings turned to Glenn and said, "But what have you done in this world?" Hollings got the laughs but came up short on votes and eventually dropped out of the race.
Lamb's new book is on political ripostes and comebacks. More.
When Hollings was running for re-election to the US Senate in 1986, his Republican opponent Henry McMaster inexplicably challenged Hollings, then in his 70s, to take a drug test, during a television debate. "I'll take a drug test," Hollings snapped, "if you'll take an IQ test."
Hollings's South Carolina colleague in the US Senate for decades was the robust Strom Thurmond, who took considerable pride in his obligations as a public servant. Few politicians, for instance, got closer to their female constituency than Thurmond. This became a source of admiration and humor.
At Thurmond's 100th birthday party, a member of his staff remarked: "I see so many people here today who Strom Thurmond has touched - and some he even squeezed." The speaker continued: "There are several things Strom would never miss - a peach parade, a Senate vote, or the opening of a Hooters restaurant." When the physically fit Thurmond married a woman 40 years his junior, a Senate colleague joked: "He's found someone he can practice his push-ups on."
When Thurmond retired from the Senate, Democrat Alex Sanders sought Thurmond's seat. If Sanders had won, South Carolina would've been represented by Hollings and Sanders, achieving the distinction of having arguably the two funniest members of the US Senate serving the state.
As Sanders campaigned, he would often tell the story of the Jewish fellow who left South Carolina, moved to New York and became a Communist. Eventually, he returned home and ran a store in a small town full of Klansmen. The FBI threatened to expose him to his neighbors if he didn't cooperate with the bureau's investigation of Communist activists. On his way home, the man saw an old-fashioned Gospel tent meeting, where he accepted Jesus as his savior and confessed all his sins, including having been a Communist.
"Well," Sanders said, "people in the South just love those who have fallen into sin and ask forgiveness. And Klansmen don't have much sympathy for the FBI. He never had any trouble in town after that."
Chris Lamb, a professor of Communication at the College of Charleston, is the author of a new book, "I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns and Ripostes," which was published in November by Frontline Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.