Monday, May 02, 2005

On Taking a Joke Too Far

All right, I think that the "look at how funny Laura Bush was" routine is now getting a little old. All the major papers have some little piece about her performance at the correspondents' dinner, blogs have analyzed it, and now the President is even referring to it in a Rose Garden speech, today, that honors American Preservation.

Look at how Laura Bush cheekily introduces the president, after briefly talking about the connection between preservation and history, and look at how President Bush responds:
MRS. BUSH: The projects we honor instill love of our great American traditions. They educate Americans about our past and about our natural world. And they demonstrate how communities can increase local pride and improve local economies when they restore and showcase their history.

This month is National Preservation Month. It's a great month for Americans to visit Preserve America sites. They're wonderful destinations for school field trips, for family adventures, or even for a romantic getaway. (Laughter and applause.)

It's now my honor to introduce America's history-buff-in-chief, George W. Bush. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: A couple of funny lines one evening and she gets carried away. (Laughter and applause.) Laura Leno Bush. (Laughter.)
Yes, it's a cute little routine, but, remember, this is the President and the First Lady of the United States of America. Besides, there's something a little jarring and uncomfortable about hearing the president imply that the first lady is getting a little too big for her britches.

A little later in the speech, Laura Bush seems to interrupt the president to correct him on something he forgot to say:
THE PRESIDENT: Our third award recipient has restored a site almost as old as America, itself. In St. Genevieve, Missouri, Bolduc Historic Properties has fixed up some of the state's first French Colonial homes, right on the banks of the Mississippi River. The restoration of the 18th Bolduc House has attracted visitors from around the country and has drawn rave reviews. Historical restoration is a job for --

MRS. BUSH: Eighteenth century. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: You've become a comedian and an editor. (Laughter.) We're glad you're here. (Applause.)
Given the president's propensity for minor verbal gaffes, I think it's bad precedent to start correcting these things when they happen. But, even more importantly, this type of thing is just a plain old interruption; all it does is draw attention away from the speech's subject and emphasize the speech's speaker. Sure, it's a minor speech about a minor thing in a pleasant little garden, but I still think everything deserves its full due. If we want to see people using humor to make others laugh and attract attention to them, though, we can just turn on late-night TV--Conan is better anyway, I think. No, I hope and suspect that folks go to a Rose Garden speech to hear something other than cheesy jokes and banter.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't object to humor in presidential speeches. After all, Presidents have frequently done that sort of thing with a good-nature and necessary self-deprecation; I think this sort of thing enacts a good type of democratic egalitarianism that is important for our system. And I also realize that, to a certain extent, a funny or witty line always refers back to the person delivering it. My objection is to how this type of joking just comes across as being too self-aware and self-referential. I think it's something of a truism to say that that a joke is not funny if you have to always point it out to people.


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