Working the room

October 10th, 2012

In the Fall 2012 issue of the Lapham’s Quarterly, Michael Phillips-Anderson, professor of communication at Monmouth University, examines the important role that humor plays in presidential elections, writing that “To be elected as a political leader in a democracy is to occupy three positions relative to the other citizens: they must be better than us, for they must lead us; they must be less than us because they err greatly and publicly; and they must be one of us, a citizen among their peers. Comedy can be a way of coping with such conflicting roles; rhetorical humor is a tool to help master them.”

“We want someone who can make us laugh,” he continues. “It cuts through our planning, expectations, and calculations. The ridiculous overwhelms the reasonable and gives us one of the few authentic experiences in political rhetoric: it truly moves us. In that moment of laughter, what Thomas Hobbes called a ‘sudden glory,’ we feel connected to a democracy that too often leaves its people feeling powerless.”

Modern presidents like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have been especially good at using humor to connect with their constituents. But, as Phillips-Anderson points out, so have earlier presidents, even those whom we might not think of as being full of humor. Case in point: Abraham Lincoln.

By all outward appearances, Abraham Lincoln was one of our least electable presidents. Tall and thin, with a long torso and big ears, his arms flailed when he spoke, and his voice was “not melodious,” but instead “shrill and piercing.” One friend said that “he provoked as much laughter by the grotesque expression of his homely face as by the abstract fun of his stories.” In the way he spoke, his carriage, his uncontrollable expressions, and his “shrill” voice, Lincoln was, according to modern TV-ready requirements, decidedly unpresidential. But what he lacked in physical appeal—it was an eleven-year-old girl who first suggested he grow a beard—he put right with words. Abraham Lincoln was funny.

Laced with a Southern accent, Lincoln’s stories and jokes reflected his rural, homespun education. According to Judge David Davis, Lincoln’s humor was:

In many respects unique, if not remarkable. His countenance and all his features seemed to take part in the performance. As he neared the pith or point of the joke or story, every vestige of seriousness disappeared from his face. His little gray eyes sparkled; a smile seemed to gather up, curtainlike, the corners of his mouth; his frame quivered with suppressed excitement; and when the point—or “nub” of the story, as he called it—came, no one’s laugh was heartier than his.

In 1848, as a young representative from Illinois, Lincoln took the House floor in support of the Whig presidential candidate, Zachary Taylor. He mocked his Democratic opponents for not gathering behind a single candidate by telling a curious anecdote:

I have heard some things from New York, and if they are true, we might well say of your party there, as a drunken fellow once said when he heard the reading of an indictment for hog stealing. The clerk read on till he got to, and through the words, “did steal, take, and carry away, ten boars, ten sows, ten shoats, and ten pigs” at which he exclaimed, “Well, by golly, that is the most equally divided gang of hogs I ever did hear of.” If there is any gang of hogs more equally divided than the Democrats of New York are about this time, I have not heard of it.

When Lincoln finished with a remark, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “He looks up at you with a great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs.”

Lincoln had an ear for entertaining, collecting anecdotes like the drunken hog-stealing tale and keeping them at the ready to make a point. “I remember a good story when I hear it,” he said, “but I never invented anything original. I am only a retail dealer.” We should perhaps take the comment as something of a dissemblance. It is difficult to imagine who else could have originated this snide remark in a letter to Gen. George B. McClellan, his eventual opponent in the 1864 election, when the general failed to advance against the Confederacy with the speed Lincoln would have liked: “If you don’t want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while.”


During his presidency, Lincoln suffered from depression, deepened by the deaths of his mother and older sister and by the Civil War. He tried to keep his darker moods out of public view, leading even his most dedicated supporters such as Richard Henry Dana to wonder, “Can this man Lincoln ever be serious?” When asked how he liked being president, Lincoln replied jokingly, and honestly, “You have heard the story, haven’t you, about the man who was tarred and feathered and carried out of town on a rail? A man in the crowd asked him how he liked it. His reply was that if it was not for the honor of the thing, he would much rather walk.” When he stood for reelection in 1864, the New York Herald called the president “a joke incarnate. His election was a very sorry joke.” Political cartoons ridiculed him for greeting any situation, no matter how grave, with “that reminds me of story…” Critics said that he wasn’t serious enough to be president and that his presentation was too common, but as president, Abraham Lincoln had a remarkable ability to connect with people and to talk to them through his own humble experience. Always unpretentious, he used his humor to embrace his origins and turn them to a political advantage, saying, “I don’t know who my grandfather was, and I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.”

Click here to read the rest of Phillips-Anderson’s article and learn more about the humor of other American presidents.

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