May 6, 2005

In Defense of Laura Bush

First Lady Laura Bush proved last weekend that she can deliver a joke better than most professional comedians and can make even the most hard-bitten Washington journalists dissolve into pure, happy laughter. Her shtick before the White House Correspondents Association has become the talk of Washington — the talk of America, really — but it also has generated considerable anxiety for the mirthless scolds among us.

I am unhappy to report that this emotionally frowsy band includes such luminaries as my friends Wlady Pleszczynski and Michelle Malkin, both of whom see in an old barnyard joke the seeds of the first couple’s undoing. Wlady fears a joke about the president’s milking a horse will send him tumbling toward the Clinton Zone, where a president becomes notorious only for his lucubrations, while Michelle worries that future historians will dismiss the Texans as a couple of Borscht Belt lightweights. It’s not as though a few japes before the press corps will obscure such things as the triumph over terror in Afghanistan, the renascence of civil society in Iraq, a democratic revolution from Northern Africa to central Asia, and a complete reordering of governmental priorities in the United States.

Meanwhile, some self-proclaimed New Testament exegetes are shuddering in horror at the very notion of a wife’s poking fun at her hubby. This unhappy lot, comprised wholly of men as far as I can tell, have branded the First Lady a sinner, a harlot, a Jezebel because she dared make fun of her husband’s (a) sleeping habits, (b) city-slicker frailties and (c) pronunciation of the word “nuclear.” One Internet hoaxter fired off a fake Traditional Values Coalition letter to this effect, but many other actual human beings let their invective fly, urging the president — in the name of the Almighty, if not in the name of American masculinity — to find some way of muzzling his insouciant bride and commanding her to coo adoringly about her dearly beloved.

The naysayers in the alarmist and pious camps have two things in common. First, they seem to have lived lives divorced from the world of humor. The joke about the president’s milking a horse is a variant of a very old city-slicker joke, in which a big-city idiot travels to the country and, hoping to demonstrate his familiarity with what John Kerry once called “beasts and fowl,” insists on proving he could milk a cow. As the joke goes, the fellow milks a bull instead — and while he gets no milk, he does acquire a new best friend. It seems the First Lady decided to clean up the old rib-tickler — which is probably a good thing.

Second, The Laura Bush Anti-Humor Caucus seems to have little appreciation for the way in which happily married men and women treat each other. Tolstoy once noted that every happy marriage is happy in the same way, while every unhappy marriage is miserable in its own unique way. One essential ingredient of wedded bliss is humor. If one mate doesn’t make the other guffaw from time to time, something’s seriously amiss; an arrangement in which neither party so much as grins qualifies less as a marriage than as a hostage situation.

To see the Bushes on stage — the First Lady joking, the president reddening with full-throated laughter — is to see things as they ought to be. With malice toward none and hilarity toward all – that’s a pretty good formula for staying together from the early days of volcanic passion to golden years of sitting on the porch, holding hands and sharing a knowing smile or two.
Jokes humanize both the jokester and the object of the jibe. It is not a sin to remind men that they have feet of clay and heads of stone. Indeed, one will look in vain for a scriptural injunction against humbling the proud by pointing out their foibles and flaws.

Finally, note one other too-seldom remarked characteristic of good humor: Love. You joke gently about people you love. When cupid first strikes, couples don’t stare blankly at one another, or swap stern countenances: They smile, with eyes and hearts blazing.

What do parents do when they look in on their slumbering children? They smile. When children begin to experience some of life’s milder shocks and humiliations: Parents look on and chuckle. And who, far from home and away from kith and kin, pulls a loved one’s picture from a wallet and frowns?

Humor is the great leveler — the universal solvent of politics. Laura Bush gets it. Her critics’ reaction, on the other hand, recalls the one and only good joke about feminists:

Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: That’s not funny!

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