George W. Bush seems to hover like an enchanted zeppelin above the choppy surface of ordinary politics. Even when a majority disapproves of nearly all the president's policies and believes this nation is going to the dogs, people seem to like and approve of him personally. The poll numbers that track his perceived character and personal appeal stay high even when the other numbers don't. Is it possible for the public to disapprove of everything a man does and still reelect him, still maybe (even) like him? You better believe it.
There are many reasons, but one dominates -- the sort of reason that often passes analysts by. Bush is funny. Americans have no litmus test for the presidency -- but if they did, "sense of humor" might be it. Your sense of humor is an open door that gives other people access to your character, to the person you are. A humorless person is a mystery. We can't ever know him, so we can't ever trust him.
American-style democracy makes humor especially important. We don't look for elevated characters or deep thinkers when we hire a president. We want someone in whom we can recognize ourselves. And we take it for granted that the president must fill the world's most powerful position with dignity but not get puffed-up about it.
We already have a fine national motto: "E Pluribus Unum" ("throw out the Democrats"). But if we ever need a new one, "Never trust a sourpuss" might be a reasonable replacement.
Granted: Sen. John F. Kerry is the perfect matte-black background for a man like Bush. Kerry brings out sterling qualities you never knew Bush had.
Bush is not pompous. Bush is not mean. Bush is not wooden. Bush could not be replaced by a humanoid robot without his friends ever noticing. Bush has friends. Bush is never patronizing. Until he ran for president against Kerry, Bush never used to beat people around the head with phony, meaningless, unverifiable statistics instead of speaking to the point. (Admittedly, he has now learned how, from Kerry.)
Almost always, Bush means what he says. Sometimes he means it so much it hurts. Bush can be painfully sincere; you can see how badly he wants you to understand and agree with him. The European line that he is arrogant is bunk; the European definition of "arrogant" is "any American who doesn't kiss my behind."
In fact, Bush errs on the side of diffidence, sometimes even tentativeness. Invariably he tells the truth as he sees and feels it. But he is not an articulate man (you've noticed?), and sometimes you can see him fighting for words like an asthmatic fighting for breath. For a Bush supporter, for anyone with normal human sympathies, those moments are agonizing. They used to happen occasionally to Ronald Reagan too. It doesn't hurt to remember that Reagan was a great president.
Kerry, on the other hand, is the living embodiment of "calculating." As an added bonus, he has Rottweiler instincts; they showed clearly in the first debate. The moment it was Kerry's turn, he leapt for the throat. Only when he is attacking viciously does Kerry seem truly at peace. For Bush, the first debate was torture. He tried a few amusing, friendly lines and got dead silence in return -- per the rules, which must have been modeled on NASA stress tests. But any attempt at humor is a leap of faith. To be greeted by silence is heart-sickening for all normal human beings. (Kerry didn't seem to mind.)
In modern times, we have occasionally elected a massively humorless president, and have always regretted it. It is no accident that Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter are the two (a) least funny and (b) most embarrassing presidents of modern history.
The year 1980 was the last time we experienced a National Humor Emergency. That election featured not only Carter (and Reagan, who was no problem) but the independent John Anderson, who talked about himself in the third person as if he were his own ventriloquist dummy.
Comedy knocks down walls between people -- especially between the president and the United States. Carter strove mightily to do the same thing in a different way. He carried his own luggage. He invited himself to sleepovers with plain people in their tacky little homes. The following morning, he would compose notes to school for the children: "Please excuse Timmy for being late; the president came to visit." He'd write them out laboriously in his own presidential hand.
Nevertheless, people still winced whenever Carter opened his mouth. Having been born without a sense of humor, he has no way to close the circuit between himself and other people. No way to make the connection. No current ever flows. Nixon was traveling the opposite way when he plunged overboard -- he had dressed up the White House police in little-toy-soldier outfits, to enhance the dignity of the presidency -- but the end result was the same.
Bush isn't hilarious. No one compares him as a humorist to Reagan or John F. Kennedy, much less Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln. But he's gently amusing; Kerry isn't gently anything. When Bush made a mild little joke during the second debate ("I own a timber company? That's news to me.... Need some wood?"), the nation breathed a sigh of relief. In the hyper-tense atmosphere of a presidential debate, an impromptu joke is rare and precious, like a summer flower in miraculous late-October bloom (in New England).
If Bush wins this election, that little joke could have made the difference. Could have mattered more than Iraq, terrorism, taxes -- because Americans play the man and not the ball -- and humor tells us something we must know. Anyone need some wood?