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Whatever Happened To Americans’ Sense of Humor?

You’d think there’d have been more laughs. Hard-fought political campaigns drenched in sweat and tears usually produce moments of levity. But Americans seem to have lost their sense of humor, becoming late-night angry, frustrated and sick with anxiety.

Mark Twain said: “The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” The problem is that Americans can’t agree on what to be sorrowful about. Many can’t even recognize as false the “facts” fueling their woes, so trapped are they in their alternate reality.

Political wit has traditionally provided sparks of light in the darkest of times.

Winston Churchill: “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War: “I can make more generals, but horses cost money.”

Made today, such remarks would easily ignite demands for apologies from groups feeling insulted — or, in many cases, feigning umbrage for political effect. Often the demands follow failed attempts at wit, which is too bad. Efforts to lighten things need encouraging.

Theodore Roosevelt poked Grover Cleveland as “His Accidency.” And when George H.W. Bush persisted in likening his opponent Bill Clinton to Elvis Presley, Clinton responded, “I don’t think Bush would have liked Elvis very much, and that’s just another thing that’s wrong with him.”

Wit requires using words and ideas in quick, inventive and humorous ways. Donald Trump’s insults were mere stink bombs. And his alt-right chorus was a uniquely dimwitted bunch. The alt-right’s idea of funny is grossly worded memes tacked on obscene images. Yuk, yuk, yuck.

Trump did show some comedic promise at the Al Smith dinner, delivering some decent jokes written for him. Self-mockery is not in Trump’s natural repertory, but he got laughs complaining that everyone loved Michelle Obama’s speech but not his wife’s when she used the exact same (plagiarized) words.

But then his rudder broke off, as it so often did, and Trump veered into leaden attacks on that “corrupt” woman. Trump’s own idea of funny wasn’t funny, but it sometimes sounded that way because of his New York patter.

Bernie Sanders, though Jewish and from Brooklyn, revealed no sense of humor. Vermont must have beat it out of him.

That said, Calvin Coolidge of Putney, Vermont, fired off some of the presidency’s most sophisticated wisecracks.

At a White House briefing, “Silent Cal” gave one-word answers of “no” to a string of questions dealing with Prohibition, the World Court and the farm situation. As reporters were leaving the room, Coolidge called out, “And don’t quote me.”

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, hasn’t said a single really funny thing on her own. (Perhaps someone can correct me on this.)

Much of the left has replaced humor with snark, which is heavy and grouchy and does not zing. The one bright lift this season came from the “Saturday Night Live” skits making fun of Clinton, Trump, Sanders and the media figures covering them.

Whatever happened to the clever retort? Whatever happened to the smart rejoinder? Portrayed as a plodding man, Lincoln said, “I am a slow walker, but I never walk back.” Not hilarious but a return shot.

Perhaps we lost our ability to laugh during the recent campaign because we didn’t find ourselves to be funny. One of the nominees was a dangerously crazy man. Scarier than Trump himself was that so many Americans found him acceptable.

Well, Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

But also remember Will Rogers’ nod to the opposition: “Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.”

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached atfharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Why Do Conservatives Keep Talking About John F. Kennedy?

A day before Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas got an earful of Bronx jeers for his rightwing views on immigration and “New York values,” he summoned up the ghost of liberal icon John F. Kennedy to signal that his was a lofty, aspirational campaign not unlike one mounted by the youthful candidate for president way back in 1960.

“The American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack,” Cruz said, quoting JFK during his acceptance speech in Wisconsin, where he had trounced his main primary rival, front-runner Donald Trump. “We are not here to curse the darkness but to light a candle that can guide us from darkness to a safe and sane future.”

Cruz, who has slowed the potty-mouthed Trump’s momentum towards the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland this summer, has pulled out other high minded phrases from the fallen crown prince of Camelot (and also from Winston Churchill) while on the stump.

In Massachusetts, the nation’s bluest state, he contended that Kennedy was “one of the most powerful and eloquent defenders of tax cuts.” He even contended: “JFK would be a Republican today. There is no room for John F. Kennedy in the modern Democratic Party.”

Unremarkably, Cruz’s commentary elicited angry blowback from Democrats, notably Jack Kennedy Schlossberg, JFK’s Grandson, who labeled the senator’s rhetoric “absurd” in an article for Politico Magazine in January. Schlossberg also denied Cruz’s assertion that Kennedy, who would be 98 years old if he were alive today, supported limited government.

“(Kennedy) created new federal programs with ambitious goals, such as the Peace Corps,” Schlossberg wrote from Tokyo. “He did not spend his years in the House and Senate devoted to obstructing the opposition. He certainly did not lead an effort, as Cruz did, to shut down the federal government to score political points and deny health insurance to millions.”

Cruz, of course, is hardly the first Republican to invoke JFK’s name, image and age on the campaign trail. As noted by many a political junkie, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, George H.W. Bush’s pick for vice president in 1988, spoke of Kennedy when defending his inexperience during a debate with Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentson, his much older Democratic counterpart and running mate of unsuccessful presidential hopeful Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Bentson famously put down Quayle with scathing disdain: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”

These days, Michael R. Long, chairman of the Conservative Party of New York since 1988, which was founded in 1962 with support from conservative icon William F. Buckley, doesn’t believe that Cruz’s praise of JFK is a deviation from conservative orthodoxy. “There’s no problem with Cruz (invoking) JFK,” he told The National Memo in a telephone conversation. “Reagan invoked JFK on tax cuts,” added Long, who also noted that Kennedy’s legacy crosses party lines: “He was an inspirational person who brought a lot of hope to a lot of Americans. Probably some conservatives voted for him because of his love of America.”

It appears that Cruz’s use of Democratic imagery is his attempt to sell what is otherwise a far-right candidacy to voters from both parties as well as independents. Last summer, Cruz told PBS host Tavis Smiley that his campaign was “modeled” after President Obama’s successful 2008 primary campaign with its emphasis on social media. Others don’t quite agree with that assessment

“While Cruz may hope to attract Democratic votes, I can’t think that’s his primary motivation,” said David Birdsell, Ph.D., Dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs in an email to this reporter. “Kennedy was known as a great speaker, Cruz fancies himself a great speaker too. Kennedy was the youngest person elected to the presidency, Cruz is only two years older than Kennedy was. Cruz wants the mantle of Camelot, but the garment doesn’t fit well and he suffers in the comparison.”

Birdsell, who believes Canada’s Justin Trudeau is far more “genuinely Kennedy-esque” than Cruz or Quayle, does regard the Texas senator as a political pro who has recognized the quality of Obama’s field operation. “He obviously loathes Obama but has the perspicacity to know there was something to learn from his campaign. That reflects well on Cruz, and the quality of his own field operation is the single most important reason he’s in second place. Lesson learned.”

Cruz, however, hit a roadblock in the Bronx this week for his hardline views on immigration and had to cancel a meeting at a charter school after students threatened a walkout. State Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr., a conservative Democrat who is also a pastor at a Bronx pentacostal church, hosted a sparsely attended event for him at Chinese-Dominican restaurant in Parkchester that also drew a few shouting local protestors.

Diaz, whose more liberal son Ruben Diaz, Jr. is the Bronx borough president and labels Cruz a hypocrite, said that he may also “do something” in the Bronx for Donald Trump, whose views are similarly loathed by many in the hispanic community.

“We’ve got to do something about the 12 million undocumented immigrants,” said the elder Diaz. “I want to build a wall to make America great again,” he added with a laugh, echoing Trump.

Trump, meanwhile, has put himself in the same league as Ronald Reagan on the issues, while his admirers have invoked Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson to describe his bellicose bloviating.

As for Trump’s purported allegiance to Reagan’s policies, Michael Long of the Conservative Party dismisses that notion. “He doesn’t come close to Ronald Reagan. He’s more like a populist candidate. Trump has brought a different style to this campaign that’s different from anything I’ve witnessed in my entire life.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Unhappy Anniversary: How Anthony Kennedy Flooded Democracy With ‘Sewer Money’

On today’s anniversary of the Citizens United decision, which exposed American democracy to increasing domination by the country’s very richest and most reactionary figures – the modern heirs to those “malefactors of great wealth” condemned by the great Republican Theodore Roosevelt – it is worth recalling the false promise made by the justice who wrote the majority opinion in that case.

Justice Anthony Kennedy masterminded the Supreme Court’s January 21, 2010 decision to undo a century of public-interest regulation of campaign expenditures in the name of “free speech.” He had every reason to know how damaging to democratic values and public integrity that decision would prove to be.

Once billed as a “moderate conservative,” Kennedy is a libertarian former corporate lobbyist from Sacramento, who toiled in his father’s scandal-ridden lobbying law firm, “influencing” California legislators, before he ascended to the bench with the help of his friend Ronald Reagan.

While guiding Citizens United through the court on behalf of the Republican Party’s billionaire overseers, it was Kennedy who came up with a decorative fig leaf of justification:

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

 As Jane Mayer’s superb new book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right reveals in excruciating but fascinating detail, Kennedy’s assertion about the Internet insuring disclosure and accountability was nothing but a little heap of happy horse-shit. “Independent” expenditures from super-rich right-wing donors have overwhelmed the opponents of their chosen candidates, promoting a durable Republican takeover of Congress — often through the deployment of false advertising and false-flag organizations.

Late last year, Kennedy confessed that his vaunted “transparency” is “not working the way it should,” a feeble excuse since he had every reason to know from the beginning that his professed expectation of “prompt disclosure” of all political donations was absurdly unrealistic.

The Citizens United debacle led directly to the Republican takeover of the Senate as well as the House. Last week, the Brennan Center for Justice released a new study showing that “dark money” – that is, donations whose origin remains secret from news organizations and voters – has more than doubled in Senate races during the past six years, from $105 million to $226 million in 2014.

During the past three election cycles, outside groups spent about $1 billion total on Senate races, of which $485 million came from undisclosed sources. In the 11 most competitive Senate races in 2014, almost 60 percent of the spending by “independent” groups came from those murky places, and the winners of those races benefited from $171 million of such spending.

In elections gone by, when anonymous smear leaflets would appear in local races — funded by nobody knew whom — political operatives would shake their heads and mutter about “sewer money.”

Today we can thank Anthony Kennedy, who was either poorly informed or willfully ignorant, for turning American democracy into a stinking open sewer.

What a legacy.

Weekend Reader: ‘To Make Men Free: A History Of The Republican Party’

Long before it became the party of big business and tax cuts for the wealthy, the Grand Old Party used to strive for economic equality for all. Those days may be a distant memory — but they could help us understand the Republican Party of tomorrow. 

In her new book, To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, historian Heather Cox Richardson explains how the GOP’s past will shape its future. Can party leaders revive the values of Theodore Roosevelt, or will they stick with a dogma of low taxes, small government, and regressive policies?

In the excerpt below, Richardson details Theodore Roosevelt’s catapult to power, and how he focused his energies toward one powerful business: The U.S. Steel Corporation.

You can purchase the book here.

The man most closely associated with this changed concept of liberalism was Roosevelt himself.  Although an easterner, he took his political inspiration from the West, where during his sojourn after his wife’s death he had ridden horses, rounded up cattle, and submerged himself in what he saw as essential America: the great West, where men were independent and justice was impartial. Although Roosevelt hired both of his ranch bosses from Maine, he maintained that it was westerners who represented the ideal American. They were hardworking, loyal, helpful, and independent.  Although in reality social lines in the West mirrored those of the East, Roosevelt insisted that all westerners met on terms of perfect equality.

Back from Cuba in 1898, Roosevelt decisively won the New York governorship on the promise that he would bring honest western-type government back to a state that symbolized corruption. He told rallies that he would cut through red tape, cater to no special interests, and defend every hardworking man of every race and creed. Even a Democratic paper in far-off South Carolina conceded that he would “make an able Governor and would give the rascals such a shaking up as they have never had.”

Once in the governor’s chair, Roosevelt began to divorce the government from the businesses that had come to control it. He strengthened civil service laws and cracked down on cramped and filthy sweatshops, where immigrants both lived and worked, spending their waking hours turning out piecework,  falling  into  bed, and getting up to go right back to work. Worse in the minds of established machine Republicans, he forced corporations that operated in a public capacity—streetcar businesses, for example—to pay taxes. Businessmen fought him, but he was determined, as he said, to establish the principle that corporations “shall pay their just share of the public burden.”

New York’s Republican establishment finally decided to bury the troublemaking Governor Roosevelt in the obscurity of the vice presidency. Roosevelt initially objected but ultimately decided that his fame would enable him to make his new version of American government national. In 1900, once again opposing William Jennings Bryan, Republicans claimed that Democrats  would  destroy the country while they, in contrast, had constructed the  world’s most successful economy, which they were unselfishly spreading across the world, along with the liberty and civil rights for which America stood. In 1900, McKinley and Roosevelt won with a comfortable six-point lead in the popular vote.

Roosevelt was wrong to think he could change the course of the nation from the vice presidency. Once in office, he discovered that he could not accomplish much of anything. His only official duty was to preside over the Senate, which would not convene until December. He was so bored he asked the chief justice of the Supreme Court if it would be unseemly for him to enroll in law school to finish his degree. (Horrified, the justice offered to supervise Roosevelt’s studies himself.)

Roosevelt fumed, but businessmen made it clear they were not afraid of the new blood in the executive branch. On February 25, 1901, J. P. Morgan combined companies producing two-thirds of the nation’s steel into the US Steel Corporation, capitalized at $1.4 billion—almost three times more than the federal government’s annual budget. Then, on November 13, Morgan’s Northern Securities Company joined the nation’s warring main railroad interests into a new conglomerate designed to circumvent antitrust legislation: a holding company. Even the staunchly Republican Chicago Tribune was taken aback: “Never have interests so enormous been brought under one management.” When midwestern governors suggested that their legislatures would find some way to prohibit such a powerful combination, Northern Securities officials threw gas on the fire by announcing that they would keep all business transactions and operations secret.

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But while industrialists had gone about business as usual, in September 1901 an anarchist with the impossible name of Czolgosz (pronounced  Cho-goss)  assassinated  President  McKinley,  and  all bets were off. “It is a dreadful thing to come into the Presidency in this way,” Roosevelt wrote to Lodge, “but it would be a far worse thing to be morbid about it.” Mark Hanna and the Republican Old Guard were less sanguine. “I told McKinley it was a mistake to nominate that wild man at Philadelphia,” Hanna moaned. “I told him what would happen if he should die. Now look. That damned cowboy is president of the United States.”

Roosevelt promptly demonstrated his belief that, like Lincoln, he was the president of every single hardworking American citizen. In October, he welcomed famous black educator Booker T. Washington to the White House, just as Lincoln had welcomed famous black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1863.  Washington was a commanding figure with searing gray eyes, a well-known leader in both the African American community and Re- publican circles. Seven months before, he had published his autobiography, Up from Slavery, which illustrated how the Republican idea of rising through education and hard work had turned a poor slave child into an important reformer. Southern whites stormed that Roosevelt had insulted the South by dining with Washington. The president retorted: “The only wise and honor- able and Christian thing to do is to treat each black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man.” Gone were the days of sectional strife: with a southern mother, a northern father, and a western ranch, Roosevelt envisioned himself as the leader of the whole nation.

Roosevelt’s first message to Congress, delivered less than three months after McKinley’s death, honored the idea of individualism and the belief that property must be protected, but it also insisted that the government must clean up industrial America. The government should, first of all, keep out of the country immigrants who were not going to be good American citizens, the new president explained. By this he meant anarchists, like the one who had killed McKinley, and also anyone who did not have “a strong body, a stout heart, a good head, and a resolute purpose to do his duty well in every way and to bring up his children as law-abiding and God-fearing members of the community.” The government should start cleaning up factories and limiting the working hours of women and children, and it should husband natural resources for everyone rather than allowing them to be exploited by greedy businessmen. And of course, Roosevelt added, America should build a strong army and navy in order to spread these principles around the globe.

For all its radical vision of government activism, Roosevelt’s message relieved the party’s Old Guard. Although the new president embraced reform, he opposed sweeping political and economic changes. He supported Republican policies that had shaped the post–Civil War economy; he hoped only to ameliorate the abuses the system had spawned. If reform were going to happen—and by 1901 it appeared imperative—Old Guard Republicans could take comfort that it came at the hands of a Republican rather than an economically heretical Democrat. Older men breathed a sigh of relief that Roosevelt’s message was inherently conservative.

Despite western outrage at the organization of the Northern Securities Company, Roosevelt did not oppose huge combinations. He did not want to destroy big business; he simply wanted the government to supervise and control corporate combinations, preventing criminality in the business world as it did in the streets. He hoped to establish rectitude through transparency. Once people actually knew what businesses were up to, the government could consider regulation or taxation to protect the public interest.

Senators and businessmen who had worried that the cowboy president would slash at the trusts breathed a hearty sigh of relief that all he wanted was “transparency.” That was easy enough to ignore. The Chicago Tribune rejoiced that Roosevelt supported business and had suggested only cautious measures to determine whether or not trusts actually were a problem. In other words, Roosevelt was simply mouthing platitudes. According to the Tribune, the “grave and reverend and somewhat plutocratic Senators immediately admitted in the most delighted fashion that the young and supposedly impetuous President had discussed the trust question with rare discrimination.” For all his reputation as a wild radical, it seemed as if Roosevelt did not intend to reduce the power of big business at all.

The Chicago Tribune and the business-minded senators were mistaken. Roosevelt expected Congress to clean up the system that had permitted the corruption of government by big business and the consequent dramatic migration of wealth upward. At the very least, surely it would look into the machinations that had birthed the railroad behemoth Northern Securities holding company. But senators had no intention of humoring the young president, and months passed without any legislation that took on the trusts. When northwesterners, who had a long history of contending against the railroads, began to grumble about the government’s inaction, Roosevelt stole a march on Congress.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

Excerpted from To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party by Heather Cox Richardson. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.

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