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Mark Shields: Genuine humor needed

We are told hourly that our national mood grows even sourer. Referring to the meltdown of the flight attendant who, after allegedly enduring abuse from belligerent passengers, lost his temper and exited the aircraft by the emergency chute, Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart quipped: “I think it’s a ‘JetBlue’ election. Everyone is frustrated, and everyone is headed for the emergency exit.”

In dark times, the nation needs to be able to have a good laugh. No recent American leader understood that better than former President Ronald Reagan. In 1987, when confidence in the president’s judgment, following the secret sending of arms to Iran, was slipping and the animosity between White House chief of staff Donald Regan and first lady Nancy Reagan was an open secret and there was press speculation about whether the 76-year-old president still had the required energy and stamina to handle the demands of the office, Mr. Reagan had this to say to the Gridiron dinner: “1986 was the year of hostile takeover attempts, inside maneuverings, high-stakes intrigue — and that was just at the White House.”

He continued: “Nancy and Don Regan at one point tried to patch things up. They met privately over lunch, just the two of them and their food tasters.” Then, to critics of his less than dawn-to-dusk work schedule, Reagan had this to say: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”

Humor, most especially self-deprecatory humor, where a political leader publicly kids his own perceived weaknesses and errors, sends an emphatically positive message about that leader’s emotional security. The politician who can laugh easily at himself tells his audience and the nation that “I’m really not that pompous or self-important. Even though I’m up here — in this office — on this elevated platform, I don’t consider myself any better than any of you sitting out there.”

And no, it is not just a matter of hiring better joke writers. As someone who earlier worked writing humor for many politicians from both parties, I can testify that only a special handful are both comfortable and convincing poking fun at themselves. There was no gag writer present when Reagan, as a candidate, was asked by a political reporter to autograph a poster photo of him and his chimp co-star in “Bedtime for Bonzo.” Reagan wrote, “I’m the one with the watch.”

During the 1980 campaign, after Reagan incorrectly insisted that trees cause more pollution than automobiles, he arrived for a speech on a California college campus, where some wiseguy grad student had hung a sign on a tree: “Cut me down before I kill again.” To his credit, Reagan laughed heartily at the needle.

Once a political leader voluntarily lampoons his own liabilities, it becomes more difficult for adversaries or the press to continue to harp on them without sounding like scolds. John F. Kennedy was secure enough to answer a young child’s question on how JFK had become a naval hero in World War II this way: “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” And facing charges that he was too young and too influenced by his willful millionaire father, candidate Kennedy told a Washington dinner: “I have just received the following telegram from my generous daddy. It says, ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”’

In the late summer of 2010, Americans desperately need leaders who can help us laugh again. Leaders like Reagan and JFK and the late beloved Arizona Rep. Morris K. “Mo” Udall, who joked after he lost 14 presidential primaries in 1976 to Jimmy Carter, just 12 years after Sen. Barry Goldwater had been trounced by Lyndon Johnson, that “Arizona is the only state where mothers don’t tell their children they can grow up to be president.” It would be a welcome antidote to the bitter, ill-tempered sourness now afflicting our body politic.