OK, Washington joke: Grover Norquist walks into his downtown office. There’s a bronze bust of Ronald Reagan, a towering stack of books, and on the windowsill of the nation’s most powerful anti-tax activist rests an oversized front page from the Onion, a satirical newspaper.
The page sports a photo of President George W. Bush. The accompanying headline reads: “Bush: Our Long National Nightmare of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over.”
Actually, only the last part is a gag.
“Oh yeah, this is cool,” Mr. Norquist said. “I got this at the Onion’s welcome-to-D.C. party. They asked me to co-host.”
To the Great American Annals of Who Knew? (No. 415: Martha Stewart apparently likes rap music) add this: Mr. Norquist — conservative stalwart, liberal bete noire — has a sense of humor. In fact, Mr. Norquist — the provocateur Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently suggested be “impeached” for torpedoing the congressional debt-reduction supercommittee (despite never holding elected office) — will be performing in the 18th annual Funniest Celebrity in Washington contest Wednesday night at the D.C. Improv in Northwest Washington.
The 55-year-old president of Americans for Tax Reform, Mr. Norquist has also performed at Washington’s Warner Theater and New York’s New School University. He has an entire set of self-written jokes, not all of them political. He’s a fan of comedians Steven Wright and Eddie Izzard and can hold an intelligent conversation about being edgy without working blue.
Mr. Norquist is a regular participant in the Washington contest, an event previously won by media mogul Arianna Huffington, former White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
“I worked with Grover [in 2008], and I think he was better than Huckabee,” said Baratunde Thurston, a comedy writer and performer who has judged and performed at the contest. “Dude is surprisingly funny.”
A Web editor for the Onion and politically liberal, Mr. Thurston expected Mr. Norquist to be much as conservative pundit Tucker Carlson once described him: mean-spirited and humorless.
Instead, Mr. Thurston found himself chuckling. Charmed, even.
“Oh, Grover is hilarious,” said Jennifer Schubert-Akin, chairwoman of the Steamboat Institute, a Colorado-based conservative think tank. “Have lunch or sit down and have a quick talk with him, and it’s part of who he is. If you’ve only seen him in little sound bites talking about tax policy, you’re missing out.”
A surprising side
Mr. Norquist isn’t the last person in Washington you’d expect to be witty. That would be Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat. But given Mr. Norquist’s partisan reputation, he probably qualifies as a strong runner-up.
The son of a Polaroid executive, Mr. Norquist grew up outside Boston, volunteering for Richard Nixon while attending middle school. In 1985, he founded Americans for Tax Reform at President Reagan’s behest. His “Wednesday meetings” — weekly conservative skull sessions — are a Beltway institution. He serves on the boards of the National Rifle Association and the Nixon Center and sports an attitude toward government aptly summarized by the title of his most recent book: “Leave Us Alone.”
Of course, Mr. Norquist is best known for his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which essentially puts former President George H.W. Bush’s famous “read my lips” promise in writing. Ninety-five percent of Congressional Republicans reportedly have signed it, along with hundreds of state legislators and a number of governors.
Mr. Norquist insists that the pledge keeps politicians honest. Political opponents argue that it holds lawmakers hostage. Either way, the pledge has given Mr. Norquist genuine political influence, earning him blame for the supercommittee’s failure and titles like the “V.I. Lenin of the right.”
In person, however, Mr. Norquist hardly comes across as a conservative stereotype. He serves on the board of GOProud, a gay group. His wife is Muslim. He’s an accomplished ballroom dancer. He counts a Janis Joplin lunchbox as a prized possession.
At a 2006 “Wednesday meeting” former Vice President Al Gore presented his famous climate-change slideshow. One slide showed a map of a shrunken United States, the nation’s coastal areas submerged by rising sea levels.
Cracked Mr. Norquist: “So, how does this affect [congressional] redistricting?”
It’s this side of Mr. Norquist — dry and sly, a little geeky and a lot unexpected — that attracted Richard Siegel, creator of the Funniest Celebrity in Washington contest. While attending one of Mr. Norquist’s Wednesday meetings, the liberal-minded Mr. Siegel noticed that Mr. Norquist was actually, well, entertaining.
“You just don’t think he’s going to be that funny,” Mr. Siegel said. “He’s a tax guy. It takes you by surprise.”
Mr. Siegel originally asked Mr. Norquist to help wrangle conservative politicians for the contest; instead, the anti-tax lobbyist ended up competing as a fill-in. He was hooked.
“He’s really gotten a lot better at comedy,” Mr. Siegel said. “He’s gotten into talking about personal stuff. He’s self-deprecating. He jokes about the conservative movement. He made some jokes about Karl Rove on stage — and he’s friends with Rove. He really enjoys showing this other side of himself.”
“Bourbon, neat; no water. My rule, never drink water. Dick Cheney tortures people with it.”
- Norquist, during the 2009 funniest Washington celebrity contest
As a political advocate, Mr. Norquist would never say that — he wants his side to win.
But as a comedian?
“I’ll make fun of each side,” Mr. Norquist said. “I once did a joke about math sequences. ‘What’s one, two, three, four, five? Bill Clinton listing the Ten Commandments. What’s three, seven, nine? [Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales] listing the Bill of Rights.’
“[Comedian] Margaret Cho will get on stage and say, ‘I hate Sarah Palin.’ As a laugh line. That’s not comedy. That’s sitting around with your friends saying, ‘The [Boston] Red Sox [stink]. You’re just self-validating.”
Mr. Norquist likens most political humor to hitting like-minded audiences over the head with a baseball bat. He frowns on vulgar jokes for the same reason. A fan of deadpan deliveries, he detests the elbow-in-the-ribs gag style epitomized by “Gilligan’s Island.”
Mr. Norquist takes comedy surprisingly seriously. He attributes his interest to friend and veteran Washington journalist Howard Mortman, who once invited him to the D.C. Improv’s amateur night.
“How do I get on the list?” Mr. Norquist asked after watching Mr. Mortman perform stand-up.
“Come up with 15 jokes, half of which work, and I’ll get you on stage,” Mr. Mortman replied.
Mr. Norquist went to work, scribbling jokes on 3x5 index cards and ordering tapes of young comedians to study. He realized the craft was similar to public speaking: Audiences are fickle, easily unimpressed. Preparation is crucial.
Last year, the Steamboat Institute asked Mr. Norquist to forgo his usual policy talk and instead give a half-hour comedy speech. Flattered, he eagerly agreed — then spent months nervously preparing his material, polishing gags in hotel rooms and on airplane flights.
By contrast, Mr. Norquist invited Joe Wurzelbacher “Joe the Plumber” — to participate in the 2009 Washington contest. Mr. Wurzelbacher neither wrote nor practiced his routine.
Unlike Mr. Norquist, he bombed.
“People who don’t do comedy usually don’t fully respect it,” Mr. Thurston said. “There’s a lot of rigor involved. You get these people who have their staffs write hacky jokes, and then they get on stage and read a litany of unemotional, inhuman tropes. But Grover is a real student. If he weren’t trying to destroy America through an obscene tax standard, he could be a great comedian.”
During a summer broadcast of “The Colbert Report,” Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert presented Mr. Norquist with a seriocomic dilemma.
Terrorists have kidnapped America’s grandmothers, stashed them underground, dipped them in honey and threatened to unleash fire ants — unless the wealthiest Americans agree to pay slightly more in taxes.
“Do we increase the tax rate?” Mr. Colbert asked. “Or do we let our grandmothers die by ant bite?”
“I think we console ourselves with the fact that we have pictures,” Mr. Norquist said.
Washington has a well-deserved reputation for being an unfunny place, largely because humor risks offense: Mr. Norquist’s “Colbert Report” crack elicited audience gasps, the last sound politicians want to hear.
As such, Mr. Norquist has been unsuccessful in convincing Mr. Rove and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich to compete in the Washington contest. Mr. Siegel said it takes as many as “150 phone calls” to find 10 willing participants.
“People in Washington have an incredible fear of looking foolish,” Mr. Norquist said.
On the other hand, a successful joke can help make a political point. Mr. Norquist long has deployed colorful metaphors when discussing public policy. Once he declared that he wanted a federal government small enough that he could “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
Another time, he likened the Democratic attitude toward tax hikes to “a high school kid on prom night.”
“They only want one thing, but they just ask the question 20 different ways. Our job is to answer ‘No, no, no, no.’ “
“Too many times, people see very good conservative speakers, and it’s like seeing the minister,” Mr. Norquist said. ” ‘What did he talk about? Sin. What did he say? He was against it.’ “
“I want people to be able to repeat a number or a thought. And people remember jokes in a way they don’t remember other things.”
In an era of nonstop, often shrill, partisan warfare, displaying a sense of humor also can humanize politicians who otherwise run the risk of becoming televised cartoon characters, forever shouting into the ether.
During previous Washington contests, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich recited the Gettysburg Address in a Donald Duck voice. Rep. Linda Sanchez joked about her sex life. Former Sen. Arlen Specter told borderline dirty gags.
In each case, the participants emerged as more likeable just for trying — as has Mr. Norquist, who now jokes about fatherhood and married life.
“The culture we’re in wants to vilify people who disagree with you,” Mr. Thurston said. “I wanted Grover to be a pure devil, a heartless, rapacious capitalist. But there’s a heart that beats in there. And it’s disappointingly humorous.”