If that is so, and it certainly seems to be, one wonders what message some politicians are trying to convey.
Take Dick Cheney, a man who seems all but incapable of a genuine smile. His facial features seem permanently deformed into a sneer, like the victim of a massive stroke. Who knows – maybe his pacemaker periodically tazes him.
What’s more likely is Cheney is trying to convey a message that he is a serious man with serious intentions. If so, someone needs to remind him there is no virtue in being sincerely wrong. Lighten up, Dick!
Bush, on the other hand, suffers from an incredible lightness of being. Yet his smile, too, often seems less than genuine, more sneer than grin. What passes for humor with him is mostly sophomoric attempts at sarcasm, or making up nasty nicknames (no matter how fitting) like Turdblossom for Karl Rove, or following up a faux pas like his back rub of German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a clumsy, childish grin that only makes matters worse. If his message is “I’m a crude buffoon who is the epitome of the Peter Principle”, he has succeeded.
These days, Bush doesn’t seem to be capable even of a foolish grin. But that’s to be expected from a man desperate to avoid a complete financial breakdown that guarantees his going down as the worst president in US history. All that’s left the man is gallows humor.
Donald Rumsfeld, Steven Addington, Phil Gramm, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich -- the list of humorless right-wingers who seem afraid of genuine laughter is endless. Like Cheney, they seem possessed by a sense of self-importance, supposing they can convey the veracity of their claims by their seriousness of their aims. But they resemble nothing so much as grim preachers who spew out fire and brimstone sermons on Sunday mornings, sermons designed to scare a fearful crowd into unquestioning obedience.
For some reason, John McCain has chosen to campaign with the same sort of unrelenting, ham-handed earnestness. Only on those rare moments where he has exposed his lighter side, such as SNL and Letterman, has he appealed to the voters he needs most -- Independents. One of the few times he has bested Obama was at the recent Al Smith dinner, where both candidates exchanged comedic barbs. Though their lines were obviously authored by their writers, McCain delivered his with more polish and timing. Both men got big laughs with the zingers, but even in the midst of laughter, it was impossible to escape the feeling McCain wasn’t kidding about even the worst of the insults.
Sarah Palin seems to have been infected by this excess of self-importance, and even this former beauty queen has traded her gorgeous smile for a tight-lipped scourging of the other side. Her invective, replete with far-fetched insinuations about terrorist connections, is often accompanied by a slight twist of the lips and an inappropriate and slightly suggestive wink that reduces her to Bush-league goofiness. Her wholesome small-town charm has been replaced by jaded big-city sarcasm. Who knows? Maybe she’s fallen victim to the very same rage she tries to invoke in her audience.
Obama, too, has an earnestness about him, but it is leavened with hope rather than laden with despair. And there is no denying the effectiveness of his smile. His mostly mild reaction to insults seems almost beatific in contrast to the grimness of the other side. To be fair, there was a grimness about Obama in the first debate, some of which was probably a nervous reaction. But since then, he appears to have learned his lesson. You can be sure his handlers warned him that the last thing he needed was to come off as NWA (Nigger With Attitude).
Some may argue a smile is inappropriate in light of our current troubles, but we’ve known far worse. If Lincoln could smile during the Civil War and Roosevelt could smile during the Great Depression and World War II, it’s fair to say these times may call for a little more laughter, too.
Come November, we’ll not only learn whether voters have had enough of earnest but wrong-headed domestic and foreign policy based on deregulation and belligerence; we’ll learn as well whether they can appreciate the irony that the son of an African black man may at long last prove the truth we have long held to be self-evident – that all men are created equal.
If that happens, the God who created us all equal may at long last smile, too.
©2008 Tom Cordle