Bob Dole passed away this week, and according to the press coverage, he took with him an entire golden age of senatorial comity. The New York Times characterized Dole’s time in the Senate as “the days when Republicans and Democrats at least tried to work together” while praising “his instincts as a deal maker.”
It was yet another lament for a supposed Pax Bipartisana gone by — and it’s not like the Times is entirely wrong. Congress really was less dysfunctional during the 1980s and ’90s when Dole was at his prime. But just as the famous Ronald Reagan/Tip O’Neill working relationship is overrated (Tip in his memoir: “It was sinful that Ronald Reagan ever became president”), so too was Dole not just some huk-yukking back-slapper.
Dole pushed hard for welfare reform while the left howled that he was shredding the social contract. He called welfare “a grand failure that has crushed the spirit, destroyed the families and decimated the culture of those who have become enmeshed in its web.” At the 1996 Republican National Convention, he trashed the Clinton administration as a “corps of the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned.”
So why the present attempt to reinvent Dole as a sepia-toned Angus King? The reason is partisan gamesmanship. The Times is ever eager to paint the current GOP as a pack of foaming zealots in great contrast to their statesmen of yore. One day, they’ll be waxing poetical over that gentlemanly Donald Trump, who at least didn’t threaten to slow the rate of spending increases to the UN’s Climate Justice for Transhumanists Fund as has that damned President Nikki Haley.
Yet though Dole was a dealmaker, he’s best remembered as something even rarer in Washington today: a wit. Put simply, Bob Dole was funny. He was so funny that he published his own book of presidential jokes. His favorite target was himself, as he constantly cracked about his loss in the 1996 election and even starred in a Viagra commercial. He was a favorite of Jon Stewart’s and appeared frequently on the Daily Show.
Washington has never been a hotbed of comedy. It lacks New York’s scathing bluntness and Boston’s sardonic edge; it also tends to attract the self-serious, those Josh Lyman wannabes who solemnly swear that They Are Here to Make a Difference. Yet DC nevertheless has had a certain understated humor of its own, wrought from the necessity of schmoozing, the dark banter of the overworked, and the abundance of easy targets. Scamps like PJ O’Rourke, Christopher Buckley, and Christopher Hitchens have all called the city home. Ronald Reagan was often funny; John McCain was too.
Today, that wit is fading. As evidence, consider Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Klobuchar, according to breathless tributes in Capitol Hill rags, is our most hilarious senator. Yet beyond the periodic slapstick of her hurling a stapler at her staff, I challenge you to find a single funny thing she’s ever said or done.
What’s happened to our political sense of humor? One problem, I think, is Washington’s near-universal recoiling from Donald Trump, whose brand was nothing so much as that of an insult comic. But the biggest reason can be summed up in one of my favorite quotes, from the Australian writer Clive James: “A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” A joke is first and foremost an act of comparison, contrasting the absurd or the idiotic with the commonsensical. It’s in the space between the two that the humor is found.
Our politics is rapidly losing its common sense, replacing it with partisan groupthink and identity politics. Thus do left-wingers endorse the Green New Deal, a bill that would require most of the buildings in America to be gutted, without even a trace of irony; thus, too, do right-wingers defend Marjorie Taylor Greene, last seen evading blasts from a Semitic space laser. In an age with a baseline of common sense, all this would be hysterically funny. Instead tribalism demands the right close rank around Greene and the left around the greens.
The fact that the Biden administration didn’t collapse into gales of laughter after it changed the word “mothers” to “birthing people” is evidence enough of a funny bone gone missing. Irony and gaiety are out; partisan anthem-playing and claims of being victimized by the other side are in. Kevin McCarthy thunders his Fox script; Nancy Pelosi makes drawling noises. Twitter, supposedly for the lolz, demands boring, literal-minded adherence. The Daily Show was long ago emaciated by partisanship. The Capitol Steps are gone.
And so back to the mischievous Dole, who once told a joke about Ronald Reagan’s beloved supply-side economics, which he hated. “A bus filled with supply-siders goes over the cliff, killing all aboard,” he said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that there were three unoccupied seats.”
Back then, this was perhaps too pitch-black a line; today, it would be denounced by the National Association of Laffer Curve Fetishists and World Organization of Green Eyeshades. Right-wingers would wonder how Dole could be so callous before sighing and sending him death threats. Left-wingers would call him racist, because why pass up a chance? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would issue fresh statistics about economist conference hotel shuttles going over cliffs (“responsible for singles of deaths every year”). Nonbinary Pigouvian bus drivers would finally demand that their voices be heard.
Dole himself would be canceled. He might reemerge a decade later, apologizing and talking up his new hydroponics garden. Yet either way, it’s precisely because this didn’t happen that his really was a better age. May the old jokester rest in peace.
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