Wit and humor have been drained from our politics, and this year it’s just as well. There’s not much to laugh about. Either candidate would be something of joke enough in any other year.
Donald Trump sometimes tries to make a funny, but Bob Hope himself never tried to make anyone laugh with a blunderbuss. A true wit uses a rapier, and the Donald doesn’t appreciate the difference between a rapier and a toothpick. The idea of Hillary trying to tell a joke beggars anyone’s belief. She tried it once on the stump in Arkansas and when nobody laughed she spent the next 10 minutes explaining why it was supposed to be funny.
But you’ve got to have the audience for humor. A lot of voters, and nearly all the media, can’t recognize a line for a laugh. Everything is taken as dead serious.
When the Donald needled Hillary Clinton and her campaign for the nth time about her “missing” emails, inviting the Russians to send them to Washington if they could find them, it was treated as a breach of ethics, a medium-sized crime or at least a low misdemeanor, and probably high treason. One newspaper even suggested that the Donald himself might be guilty of a felony.
His invitation to the Russians was clearly a joke, even if not necessarily a thigh-slapper. “Russia, if you’re listening,” he said, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you’ll be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that will happen. That will be next.”
Even Grandma Grundy would have recognized this as a needle, first applied to Hillary, to remind everyone that she lost the emails in the first place and in the second place hadn’t been able to find them. Who would trust such a scatterbrain with anything important? This was further a needle to the pious pleaders of the press, who are always eager to exploit something and then rail at someone for furnishing the exploitable. It was further a slip of the needle to the Russians, who shouldn’t have been hacking into Hillary’s emails (if indeed they had been), anyway.
For serious students of the endless volumes of Clinton scandal, it was a reminder that Hillary has a history of losing things, such as the infamous billing records at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, which might have revealed her chicanery in the private sector. Her chicanery, as the world would learn, has no bounds, private or public.
Hillary’s ideas of something funny are the whoppers she tells with gusto, whether it’s about foiling snipers in Kosovo, fabricating heroic tales of how close her daughter Chelsea was to the falling towers on Sept. 11 (she actually was nowhere near them and Hillary was in another state), and only this week, telling the latest installment of the big lie she first told about her emails.
When Chris Wallace of Fox News asked her Sunday about the emails, she told the whopper that earned her four coveted Pinnochios from The Washington Post fact-checking shop. She said James Comey, the director of the FBI, had cleared her of all suspicion in his investigation of her private email server.
“Director Comey said my answers were truthful,” she said, “and what I’ve said is consistent with what I have told the American people, that there were decisions discussed and made to classify retroactively certain of the emails.” The answer left incredulity awash on the face of her questioner, so great was the whopper, and Hillary’s nose began to grow, finally reaching the edge of 52-inch screens in sports bars across the land.
This latest Hillary whopper was almost too much even for her acolytes in press and tube. One columnist, famous for carrying her purse for years as a correspondent for The Associated Press, called it “another excuse for people to distrust her, another thin reed upon [which] undecided voters could justify a belated allegiance to [Donald Trump].”
The Donald can stretch a fact or two, too, as we learned in the endless primary season now mercifully over. But he has a gift for occasional wit, as when he needled Elizabeth Warren for her medium-sized whopper about her Cherokee ancestry, dismissing her as “Pocahontas.” He even dispensed a little history.
But in a contest of liars, Hillary has unfair advantage. The late William Safire of The New York Times took her number years ago, calling her “a congenital liar,” a liar who doesn’t know when she’s lying and often lies when the truth would do her better. There’s nothing funny about that.
• Wesley Pruden is editor-in-chief emeritus of The Times.