In humility, we know to laugh at ourselves. In anger, we forget. We have forgotten. Whatever the consolations of perpetual outrage, they cannot compete with the joys of laughter. If humor does not replace taking action, it can be a sound supplement because we live in times as comic as tragic.
True, modern politics – the great divide between folly and common sense – seems worthy of perpetual outrage and anger, but to what end?
On one hand, the number of wrongheaded, oddball, misguided, objectively illogical, and even idiotic decisions made by national leaders – and the slide toward consolidating power over everything at the expense of our individual liberties – is enervating enough to drive sane people mad.
On the other hand, if you can step up, speak up, and live the example of celebrating individual liberties, pushing back with reason, logic, facts, law, history, and the joys of self-reliance, what does anger add?
One wonders – one has to – whether the Founders, people like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, felt a powerful sense of anger and perpetual outrage when their liberties, decision-making, self-rule, self-reliance, and livelihoods were being squashed.
Similarly, one wonders whether Abraham Lincoln, Grant, McClellan, and Hancock – all Union generals – felt more than mere mission and commitment allowed anger to play some role in their actions.
Closer to our time, uniformed patriots like Theodore Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George Herbert Walker Bush all confronted personal and national crises, stood up – long before civilian office – for individual liberty, and probably felt anger.
Yet all these patriots managed outsized challenges, including direct challenges to their personal liberties and ours, without recourse to perpetual anger. Many did so with intention, self-control, and humor.
George Washington, usually serious in deportment, could laugh so hard he cried and was famous for importing humor into letters – lightening the load of reader and writer. At one point, after having two horses shot out from under him and four musket balls tearing his coat, he was reported dead.
Writing his brother: “I have heard…a circumstantial account of my death and dying speech…I take the opportunity of contradicting the first and assuring you that I have not as yet composed the latter.”
John Adams, known for sharp wit, was filled with sardonic humor. He noted, “One useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three is a Congress,” turned humor to good purposes.
Jefferson, likewise, used humor to his advantage. “He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors,” and “The two enemies of the people are criminals and government…Let us tie down the second with the chains of the Constitution so it will not become a legalized version of the first.”
On life, “I am a great believer in luck, and the harder I work, the more I have of it.” On anger: “When angry, count to ten before you speak; when very angry, count to 100.”
James Madison: “Philosophy is just common sense in big words,” and attributed his odd Scottish accent speaking French to a Scottish tutor: “I might as well have been speaking Kickapoo…” Funny sounding, Kickapoo was an Algonquin language.
As for Abe Lincoln, what can you say? He was a walking wit despite poverty, war, and illness.
On preparation: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” On attitude: “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”
On character: “Nearly all men stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” And then, bluntly: “I walk slow, but I never walk back.”
In reality: When politicians complained General Grant drank too much, Lincoln pointed to his winning record. “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whisky that Grant drinks – I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”
Great leaders lead through hard times with humor. TR used it to defuse and inspire. “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month,” and “Believe you can, and you are halfway there.”
Reagan, of course, was an inveterate and self-deprecating humorist, even as he brought down the Soviet Union and restored our belief in ourselves. Daring to test the sensibilities: “I’ve noted that everyone who is for abortion has already been born,” and “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job, depression is when you lose yours, and recovery is when my opponent loses his.”
On character, “Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession; I have come to realize it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” Late Cold War, “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to announce that I’ve signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union – we begin bombing in five minutes.” That one, historians say, mortified leaders of the “late USSR.”
So here is the thing: like the glass half full or empty, humor can be used or unused. Better, in tough times, to use it. As Washington observed, toward the end of his life: “It is assuredly better to go laughing than crying through the rough journey of life.” Goodness knows modern politics is as comic as tragic.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.
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