Mostly missing from the moving and deserved tributes to Sen. John McCain was attention to McCain’s gift for self-deprecating humor. When a Gallup Poll, during his last Senate term, showed that only 11 percent of the public had a favorable view of the U.S. Congress, McCain noted that when you’re at 11 percent favorable, it basically means you’re “down to paid staffers and blood relatives.” Barely a month later, when Gallup had Congress’ approval down to just 9 percent, McCain told reporters of receiving a phone call that morning from his no-nonsense then-105-year-old mother, Roberta, and said: “I can tell you that we in Congress are now down to paid staffers.”
After his 2008 defeat to Barack Obama, McCain recalled the losing presidential quests of fellow Arizonans: Conservative icon Barry Goldwater was routed in 1964 by Democrat Lyndon Johnson; beloved Democratic Rep. Mo Udall, from Tucson, finished second in 1976 to Jimmy Carter; Bruce Babbitt, a former governor of Arizona, won positive reviews but no primaries against Bill Clinton in 1992. McCain’s conclusion: “Arizona may be the only state in the country where mothers don’t tell their children they can grow up to be president.”
The politician who can believably use self-deprecating humor is sending a clear message to voters: “I am not terminally self-important or thin-skinned. I do not take myself all that seriously.” The politician who can laugh at his or her own perceived shortcomings or weaknesses is telling fellow citizens, “I am comfortable in my own skin and not threatened by criticism.”
No one was better at self-deprecation than Ronald Reagan. Aware of press and opposition criticism about his leisurely White House work schedule, in which his day rarely began before 10 a.m. and was generally over well before 5 p.m., Reagan confronted the subject at a press dinner I attended: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?” By the ability to laugh at himself, Reagan effectively disarmed his critics, who, if they returned to the same criticism, risked looking like humorless scolds.
My personal Reagan favorite was an exchange with a wire service reporter during the 1980 campaign, when Reagan’s critics often disparaged his time as a movie actor. The reporter asked the candidate to autograph an old promotional photo of Reagan and one of his co-stars, the chimpanzee Bonzo. With good nature, the Gipper obliged, writing: “I’m the one with the wristwatch.”
When the politically charged issue of same-sex marriage confronted Republican Mitt Romney, he once responded this way: “As a Mormon, I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.” Not bad.
George W. Bush, who had actually said in one campaign stop that “families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream,” mocked his own broken syntax by quoting Garrison Keillor’s line that “George Bush’s lips are where words go to die.” He even reported the counsel he had received from a fellow Texan, Democrat Bob Strauss, about how to rebut the perception that he was not up to the job: “Mr. President, you can fool some of the people all of the time — and those are the ones you need to concentrate on.”
I can honestly say I have never seen Donald Trump speak a single self-deprecating line or, for that matter, even seen him spontaneously laugh at someone else’s humor. Calling an opponent “a loser” or “crooked” or “failing” is abuse. It is ridicule. But it is not humor, and it is not appealing. That may help to explain why the humorless Trump is today the least liked Republican presidential nominee of the past 70 years.