The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy brings many thoughtful pieces on how the United States has changed since that horrible day, such as fellow America contributor Francis X. Clooney’s “JFK and Me.” I’m struck by how political discourse has changed since the early 1960s, and mostly for the better.
On this point, I disagree with the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby, who writes today, “In our age it has become almost axiomatic that politicians, especially presidents and presidential candidates, can be satirized and ridiculed as nastily as possible.” He contrasts today’s political humor, typified by Saturday Night Live and the scathing Daily Show to Vaughn Meader’s “gentle, even affectionate” impression of JFK on comedy albums released when that president was in office. One of Meader’s albums carried a notice that no disrespect was meant to the public figures being spoofed: “the very fact that they are able to laugh with us ... is in part what makes them the great people they are.” Jacoby concludes, “Audiences today laugh just as hard as they did 50 years ago. But the jokes have grown venomous, and they take an implacable toll.”
Every generation has its complaints about politics being nastier than ever, but human nature hasn’t changed very much. What’s different today is that it’s more acceptable to mock figures of authority and less acceptable to ridicule powerless groups in society. To many of us, comic depictions of the president of the United States as a buffoon or a liar (whether George W. Bush or Barack Obama) are less offensive than an earlier era’s condescending attitudes toward women, gays and lesbian, African-Americans, and other groups trying to participate in public debate.
The American Prospect has an excerpt from Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis’s book Dallas 1963 that makes the Tea Party and Occupy movements of recent years seem genteel. Here is a description of Lyndon Johnson making a campaign stop in Dallas, as JFK’s running mate in the fall of 1960. “Alger” is Bruce Alger, a Republican congressman from Dallas:
Once the Johnsons appear, it is as if an electric current snakes through the streets. Alger’s women are bustling, waving signs, yelling louder. The crowd seems to be getting bigger, angrier. If John F. Kennedy’s triumphant motorcade a few weeks earlier summoned Dallas’s sunny side, Lyndon Johnson is now running into a full-fledged thunderstorm.
Catcalls cascade over the street. Some hear curses. The placards are being stabbed in the air: TEXAS TRAITOR. JUDAS JOHNSON: TURNCOAT TEXAN. LET’S BEAT JUDAS.
Alger stands a head taller than everyone around him. His sign reads: LBJ SOLD OUT TO YANKEE SOCIALISTS.
The crowd forms a rolling circle around the Johnsons. Someone swings a sign in close to Lady Bird’s head, brushing against her hat. The reddened faces are closing in. LBJ clutches his wife.
Another voice shouts: “Judas!”
The New Republic’s website has a gallery of photos from anti-Kennedy protests in Dallas, including a WANTED FOR TREASON flier that practically calls for someone to remove the president from office by any means possible. (“He has given support and encouragement to the Communist inspired racial riots” and “He has consistently appointed Anti-Christians to Federal office.”)
There’s no humor in any of this, respectful or otherwise. It’s just raw hate, and when I read about American politics before the Civil Rights Act, I can’t get as worked up about Rush Limbaugh’s sarcasm or some of the puns on the signs of Tea Party protestors. If crude humor is a pressure valve that allows people to work out their frustrations without violence, I can live with it even when I don’t like it. And I’m grateful that we now have plenty of outlets like The Daily Show to eviscerate the people behind things like that TREASON flier.
An appreciation of Moms Mabley
For a great of example of subversive humor in the service of positive social change, watch HBO’s new documentary on Moms Mabley, who used her risqué jokes and rude-old-lady persona to make sneak attacks on bigotry and hypocrisy in America. June Thomas, writing about the Whoopi Goldberg-produced documentary for Slate, describes one of Mabley’s appearances on The Merv Griffin Show:
Mabley haltingly begins an anecdote about her travels through the American South. Her memory seems to be failing—in 1969, she was somewhere around 72 years old—so Griffin gallantly helps out.
“What’s that man got that horse in pictures … that Western man?” Mabley asks.
“They name me Roy Rogers’ horse …”
“Trigger?” Griffin suggests.
“Yeah, everywhere I go, they’re, ‘Hello, Trigger. What you saying, Trigger?’ At least I think that’s what they say.”
Imagine parents watching this with their kids and having to explain that joke. It ruined the decorum and good taste of Griffin’s talk show, if for only a moment, and democracy was better for it.
Picture of Vaughn Meader comedy album courtesy The Magpie.