I have long believed that political humor is to humor what Velveeta is to cheese.
I don't think I have ever heard a presidential candidate tell a really funny joke. And if I did, I'd wonder whom he had stolen it from.
Presidential candidates are many things, but Henny Youngman they are not.
"Hey, take my tax plan, please. George Bush really has a Midas touch. Everything he touches turns into a muffler!"
So it was no real surprise that when Bob Kerrey, Democratic presidential candidate and senator from Nebraska, attempted humor last week, it was a disaster.
Kerrey, attending a political dinner, thought he was telling a private joke to another candidate, Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas. But C-Span microphones picked it up, though C-Span did not broadcast it.
This, cleaned-up, is the joke:
Jerry Brown (also a Democratic candidate for president) goes into a bar. He sees two attractive women sitting there and he remarks to the bartender how attractive they are.
"Forget it, pal," the bartender says. "They're lesbians."
"How do you know?" Jerry Brown says.
"Because they like to [deleted]," says the bartender.
"So what?" says Jerry Brown. "I like to [deleted], too. Does that make me a lesbian?"
Two things immediately strike about this joke:
1. It is not funny. I don't mean it is not funny because it is so cruel or disgusting. It is just not funny.
2. I am not sure it really demeans lesbians, but it is crude. And, in the magical world of presidential politics, we want our candidates both to be human and perfect.
In any case, Kerrey soon felt as if a very large rock had fallen on him.
In what has now become a familiar scene, he was asked intensely serious questions followed by seriously intense questions, followed by his apology, followed by demands for further action, followed by analyses as to Kerrey's "character" and "fitness" to be president.
Further targets were searched for. The joke, you may remember, was told to Bill Clinton. And so the next question became: Did Clinton laugh at the joke?
If he had, maybe we would have been able to destroy two careers with one joke, which might be a record. Clinton's press secretary, however, says Clinton did not laugh. (But did he chuckle? Grin? Crack a smile? Smirk?)
After Kerrey apologized and things seemed to be calming down, David Beckwith, Dan Quayle's press secretary, proved that you don't have to be a Democrat to be a jerk.
Beckwith, speaking in public, told the following joke at a Quayle fund-raiser last week:
"The good news is that the lesbians are upset with Kerrey. The bad news is that they'll be coming our way to support us."
Personally, I think Beckwith's joke was far worse than Kerrey's. Beckwith's joke categorizes lesbians as an unwanted segment of society while I'm not sure Kerrey's joke does.
Beckwith was, of course, forced to apologize.
The real question for anyone in public life today is whether humor is worth the effort.
But at the same time the press jumps all over politicians for joking around, it also jumps all over them for being grim and humorless.
Ask Michael Dukakis. He was criticized for being Zorba the Clerk. For being The Man Who Could Eat One Potato Chip.
If it occasionally occurs to presidential candidates that they can't win, well, they can't.
Which is why I called the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a national lesbian and gay organization, and asked Eric Rosenthal, the political director, if Kerrey's joke was really so terrible.
"I think it makes fun of women and I think it makes fun of lesbians," Rosenthal said. "Reportedly it was told in a vulgar fashion. This is not what we expect from a person of Senator Kerrey's stature."
Isn't it possible for candidates to joke a little? Do you have to be humorless to be president? Gays and lesbians aren't humorless are they?
"That's a very, very interesting question," Rosenthal said. "There are a lot of jokes you can tell that don't have anything to do with offending people and presidential candidates ought to tell those. I don't want a president without a sense of humor. And much of the gay and lesbian movement is far from humorless."
Rosenthal pointed out that in Nebraska, Kerrey had supported legislation protecting gays and lesbians "at a time when it was more difficult to do so."
So why not cut the guy some slack? I said. Why not give him a break considering his record?
"Well, because it [the joke] became so public that it became incumbent upon us to point out its harmful effect," Rosenthal said. "It is not going to be the only thing that happens in this presidential campaign. We hope Kerrey will say other, positive things on issues related to women and gays and lesbians."
And I'm sure he will. I'm sure he'll say many, many totally and completely serious things for a long time. I am sure that in the future he will approach humor about as willingly as he would approach plutonium.
Offending people is not the real trouble with political jokes, however. You want to know the real trouble with political jokes?
Too many of them run for president.