Taking a joke

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One of the most memorable moments of Nancy Reagan’s tenure as first lady was her spoof of the show tune “Secondhand Rose” at a white-tie affair in 1983. Mrs. Reagan, who died on March 6, performed the song in thrift-shop clothes in response to criticism about her accepting designer dresses as gifts. As recounted on the website of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, “She received a standing ovation… from a newly appreciative and admiring press corps,” and her willingness to poke fun at herself “transformed her image.” Five years later, when the New York Times scolded the first lady for again “borrowing” expensive clothing, its editors nevertheless referred to the “Secondhand” performance as “a graceful response” to controversy.

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Mrs. Reagan helped to make self-deprecating humor de rigueur in American politics. When Dan Quayle was nominated for vice president in 1988, he got good press by going along with the gag that he was a light-weight running for an unnecessary office. After George H. W. Bush was defeated for re-election in 1992, he invited “Saturday Night Live” member Dana Carvey to do his impression of the president at the White House–an impression that Mr. Carvey described as a cross between Mr. Rogers and John Wayne. Being a good sport, especially about a portrayal that lampooned Mr. Bush’s not-always-successful effort to come off as tough, helped the president’s image and may have helped his family to stay relevant in the Republican Party.

Bill Clinton got his first national exposure making a speech at the 1988 Democratic national convention that seemed to last forever. Leaning into the joke that he was a longwinded bore was the natural next step, so the Arkansas governor appeared just a few days later on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and joked that he had intentionally given a terrible speech to make presidential nominee Michael Dukakis look good. Mr. Clinton’s star was back on the rise.

Perhaps a president can go too far in making fun of himself, and the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a test of that proposition. George W. Bush startled many at that event in 2004 with a series of photo gags in which he supposedly hunted for Saddam Hussein’s fabled weapons of mass destruction in the Oval Office–an audacious response to criticism that he rushed to war in Iraq on the basis of unreliable intelligence reports. Barack Obama has made jokes at the dinner about conspiracy theories that he’s not a U.S. citizen, which probably doesn’t help efforts to put those rumors to rest.

Several candidates seeking to replace Mr. Obama have tried to show they can laugh at themselves. The Republican Marco Rubio attracted some ridicule in 2013 when he awkwardly took a swig from a water bottle while giving a response to the president’s State of the Union speech. The Florida senator quickly tried to get ahead of the joke–for example, by selling bottles of water on his website with the pitch “not only does Marco Rubio inspire you … he hydrates you too.” The consensus was that Mr. Rubio benefited by coming across as someone who didn’t take himself too seriously.

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That was before Donald J. Trump entered the race. Mr. Trump, who did not seem pleased when President Obama made fun of him at the correspondents’ dinner in 2011, has many public-speaking skills, but the ability to make fun of himself is not one of them. If he gets to the White House, he may not respond with good cheer to ribbing about his business ventures, New York accent or distinctive hair style. Mr. Trump’s success may be a sign that the public has grown weary of self-deprecation in the service of image-making. He has dismissed as phony the friendship between two of his rivals, Mr. Rubio and Jeb Bush (“They hate each other”), and his rejection of good-natured humor may tap into some voters’ belief that difficult times call for impolite leaders.

We shouldn’t go that far. Nancy Reagan’s song may have been corny, but it was a welcome cease-fire in partisan battles, a chance for all to share a laugh. Self-mockery can be a kind of empathy–it says, “I know what it’s like to be ridiculed”–and empathy is sorely missed in today’s politics. I wouldn’t mind seeing a “Secondhand” reprise this year.

ROBERT DAVID SULLIVAN is an associate editor of America.

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