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March 23rd, 2017

Insight

Wanted: A sense of humor

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published April 1, 2016

It's been a wacky election season, but when hasn't it been? Remember when Ross Perot, who couldn't decide whether he was running or not running for president, did both, alternately jumping in and out of the race as the mood struck him? Welcome to the quadrennial circus that is an American presidential campaign.

This year the stacked deck now has two jokers -- Donald Trump, the self-infatuated real-estate magnate of reality TV and the Greater New York Metropolitan Area, and Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey with a gift for gab. Naturally he promptly endorsed The Donald. It's a wonder how anybody can take them seriously -- even if they're not at all funny.

Conservatives used to be known as the humorless party, but then a relatively unknown candidate for mayor of New York City surfaced: a young intellectual who had started his own magazine to fill a void on the American right. And everything changed. He had a sense of humor (in addition to a lot more) and it showed. He actually thought politics should be ... fun! As soon as the election returns showing he'd lost had been certified, somebody asked what he'd have done if he'd won. His immediate response: "Demand a recount!"

His name was William F. Buckley Jr., and soon there was no need to introduce him. His book about that campaign, "The Unmaking of a Mayor," soon proved a small classic, unlike his other books, like "God and Man at Yale," that proved great ones.

Can you imagine any of the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination this year, or even behind-runners, engaging in wit, irony or anything else besides bluster, braggadocio and endless self-promotion? Can you picture them telling self-deprecating jokes? But this Buckley character not only told them, he made a weekly television show featuring his wit-and-wisdom that competed with the most watched news programs on the air. And it was on educational television yet. The program, "Firing Line," was a combination vocabulary test ("mere velleity," "asymptotically") and cat-and-mouse game with outmatched guests, whose dumbfounded looks said it all: "What did he just call me?"

Then there was Bill Buckley's plummy accent, which seemed to have derived from his days in English public schools, meaning the elite private ones, but also invented as he went along, dragging out every upper-class vowel with aristocratic savor.

A rhetorical strategist of the first rank who'd grown up conjugating Latin verbs and starring on debate teams, Mr. Buckley "would nudge the guest gently but firmly down the slippery slope to forensic demise. It was an intellectual execution by a most genial hangman," as Firing Line producer Neal Freeman put it in the Wall Street Journal. It's hard to imagine now, but there was once "a charming and commanding conservative presence at the center of American culture."

Now we get a bumptious Donald Trump, who substitutes repetition for argument, a nice guy like John Kasich who has little but his niceness to recommend him, or the likes of a Ted Cruz who manages to sound principled one day and opportunistic the next -- a bunch that alternates between taking themselves too seriously and the issues not seriously enough.

Welcome to yet another wacky American election campaign -- one without humor, without wit or learning or dignity. In short, one without William F. Buckley.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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