This year's keynote speakers at the annual Alfred E. Smith ("Al Smith") memorial dinner, an extremely high-end charity fundraiser for Catholic charities in New York, were the two major-party presidential candidates. Both President Obama and Mr. Romney delivered funny speeches, each aiming barbs at himself as well as at the other. You can watch them below (each is 8-10 minutes long):
Sorry about the ads, if you see any.
A couple of thoughts about this kind of thing.
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Yeah, they don't write their own speeches. But there are two things that speech writers can't provide:
(1) Delivery and comic timing.
(2) The final decision whether to use, or not use, a joke that is simply bad: mean, or inappropriate, or unfunny.
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I don't often let my kids (all twelve and under at this point) watch political rhetoric, whether in stump speeches or in debates. At this age, I like to expose them to reliably good rhetoric, and to form them in the idea of what politics and debate should be. Respectful of persons, even though cognizant of differences; logically structured; comprehending the opponent on his own terms rather than setting up strawmen.
But I was glad to show these videos to my two oldest children. I think it displayed both men at their best, coming together with good humor for a good cause, but without ignoring (in fact, highlighting) the real differences between them. I also thought the ends of both speeches, where they turned serious to pay tribute to the good work done by their hosts, neatly demonstrated some of the differences between the men. Mr. Romney's hat tip to the protection of the unborn, and the applause it received, did not go unnoticed.
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There was some discussion of this at Ann Althouse's blog. Commenter "Jeffrey" wrote:
By the way, this mixing of humor and seriousness is very American. I never really thought about it until I lived in other countries where, for example, a local newscast would never jump from reporting a tragic accident that ends in death to a funny one about an animal rescue. In the US, newscasters jump effortlessly from delivering the sad story with a serious face to, the next second, a smile and a chuckle about that animal rescue.
You also find it in certain types of sitcoms (like "M.A.S.H.," for example) that juxtapose serious and comic scenes.
In politics, too, both humorous and serious discussions have their roles. For Americans, being able to laugh at oneself is an important guide to one's character. In other countries, whether one can laugh at oneself is considered irrelevant as a measure of political acceptability.
Why do Americans blend these two? I have a few theories, one of them being its centrality to our democratic, multi-ethnic society. I'm sure someone here can explain why, for example, German politicians would never participate in something like the dinner that Obama and Romney did last night.
I thought this was a great question, and answered that I thought it came from our British political heritage. The Brits do this too -- having perfected a particular sort of dark humor, and turning their Parliamentary speeches often into stinging barb-fests.
Americans owe Brits quite a lot when it comes to the organization of our political system as well as many deeper undercurrents of social and political philosophy. But I hadn't before thought of them as the originators of our collective love for displays of political wit -- either self-deprecating (demonstrating how deeply we value a man's ability to laugh at himself) or viciously cutting (demonstrating, er, how much we value a man's ability to make people laugh at someone else?) I think we count it as a particular, and particularly important, display of a certain kind of intelligence.