Tuesday, January 29, 2008

in politics, no comedian left behind

Chris Lamb
Special To The Sentinel
January 27, 2008

Eighty years ago, humorist Will Rogers said it was becoming harder to tell the difference between politicians and comedians. "Everything is changing," Rogers said. "People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke."

His words are at least as appropriate today as they were in his day.Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently told Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, that he owed his popularity to the comedy program.

Huckabee said he gained in the polls among Republican candidates after an earlier appearance on the show."The only reason I'm the front-runner now is because of the Colbert bump," the straight-faced former Arkansas governor said. "Were it not for that I would not be sitting in this chair. I would probably be somewhere serving hamburgers at a drive-in restaurant."

Huckabee, hoping for another bump in popularity, asked Colbert to be his running mate."Yes," Colbert responded, "a thousand times yes."

Huckabee and Colbert were only kidding -- I think.

But as the line blurs between comedy and politics, how soon before we take seriously a Huckabee-Colbert -- or even a Colbert-Huckabee -- ticket?

Colbert was once a presidential candidate himself. When he announced his candidacy last fall, he challenged traditional presidential campaigns. For one thing, Colbert said he was running as a Republican and a Democrat -- or a Republicrat.Second, he said he planned to run only in his home state, 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 state Democratic Party refused to put his name on the ballot. Party leaders groused that Colbert would make a mockery out of the political process. When pressed further, the Democratic Party officials conceded they could make a mockery out of the political process without any help from outsiders.

If Huckabee really were to select Colbert as his running mate, it would, of course, go against tradition. America prefers its vice presidents to be punch lines and not comedians -- at least not professional comedians.

Vice presidents -- such as Dan Quayle -- traditionally make their greatest contribution to humor, not politics.Quayle, who served as President George Herbert Walker Bush's vice president, made it easy for comics. Comics didn't have to come up with their own material; they only had to quote Quayle.

For instance, Quayle famously referred to the National Negro College Fund's slogan of "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste" by saying: "What a waste it is to lose one's mind -- or not to have a mind. . . . How true that is." Quayle once defended his verbal gaffes by saying, "I stand by all my misstatements." How true that is.

Will Rogers ran for president in 1928 as the candidate of the "Anti-Bunk Party." But bunk won. Forty years later, in 1968, Pat Paulsen, another comedian, ran for president. But Richard Nixon was elected, and the joke was on us.

Now, 40 years later, given the state of the country, maybe it's time we put a professional comedian in the White House.The future of the country is too important to be put in the hands of amateurs.

Chris Lamb is a professor of communication at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. His most recent book is "I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes." He can be reached at lambc@cofc.edu. PHOTO: PAT PAULSEN PHOTO: WILL ROGERS -->

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