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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Let's Keep the Jokes Out of This . . . After I Tell a Few

November 22, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

Do you know what would be a nice thing to see, in this nasty, never-ending election of ours? It would be lovely to see everybody agree to call a temporary halt to the single most unfair facet of Florida's big vote recount:

Katherine Harris makeup jokes.

I mean, talk about smear tactics. This woman is secretary of state of our fourth-largest state. She isn't a contestant in the Miss Greater Tallahassee pageant.

Nevertheless, from her very first nationally televised public appearance, Harris has been subjected to a nonstop bombardment of attacks on her appearance.

You know the type.

"Who does her makeup--Earl Scheib?" "I've seen less face paint at Ringling Brothers." "She obviously went to college on an Estee Lauder scholarship." "I never knew that the Joker from the Batman comics had a sister."

Oops, there I go, telling them myself.

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Funny thing is, comments such as these are frequently made on television, by some of the homeliest people you've ever seen.

They're pretty much the same people who can't resist cracking wise about Janet Reno (height), Monica Lewinsky (weight), Hillary Rodham Clinton (legs), Paula Jones (nose), Linda Tripp (various), and other well-known women and their physical attributes.

Interesting how few similar gags you hear about Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, Jeb Bush, David Boies, James Baker. . . .

Whenever a joke's at the expense of Bill Clinton, Al Gore or either of the George Bushes, you'll notice that it generally has to do with his: (a) personality (b) voice or (c) intelligence.

("Dumb guy" jokes may be unkind, but someone holding a political office is supposed to be qualified intellectually, as opposed to physically.)

For the women, though, it's a slap right to the face . . . or the waist . . . or you name it, from head to toe.

And you wonder why more women don't run for president? How would you like your physical appearance ridiculed seven days a week, for four to eight years?

Or you wonder why a woman wouldn't sue a president? How would you like to charge sexual harassment, only to be mocked as not being sexy enough to harass?

It's one thing to have cartoonists draw caricatures of you; that's an equal-opportunity art form. Clinton's nose, Reagan's hair, Carter's teeth, Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow . . . you expect these things to be exaggerated. Furthermore, the sole motive of an editorial cartoon is seldom to paint somebody as physically unattractive.

And you're never going to keep people from making cruel personal comments behind your back. But there are TV comedians and even commentators who are going out of their way to publicly make fun of the Florida secretary of state's cosmetics.

Why are only women fair game?

I don't hear a lot of comedians saying on TV: "And then did you see what that bald-headed Bill Daley did?"

Back before jokes about President Clinton dealt with his infidelity, they often concentrated on his fondness for fried foods. But they were seldom "he's so fat" jokes. They rarely seemed as cold or calculated as the insults aimed at Reno, Lewinsky, Harris, et al.

Professional comics obviously look for an opening and zero in on it. (For example, they still like to do "fat" jokes about Elvis Presley, who for 42 of his 44 years was fit as a fiddle.)

I do enjoy it when they go after someone like Katherine Harris for something she is doing, or saying. Now that's fair play to me--zinging a female politician the same way you would a male.

First Lady Rodham Clinton's cattle futures, Whitewater involvement, even her claims to be a diehard New York baseball fan . . . go ahead, give her the raspberry. But let's leave her figure out of it. And the same goes for Barbara Bush looking like George W.'s grandmother.

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Seriously, there's plenty of fresh comedy material coming out of Florida these days. How can you go wrong with vote-counters being accused of secretly "eating the chads" so ballots would count?

(I've heard of eating doughnut holes, but never ballot holes.)

Katherine Harris' behavior is definitely worth discussing. Her bias is an unwelcome intrusion in a free election, and she'd be stalling like crazy were her man Bush trailing by a few hundred votes.

Her lipstick, however, shouldn't be an election issue.

Not unless traces of it are found on 1,000 pro-Gore ballots tossed in a Tallahassee trash basket.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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