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In defense of the civil right to laugh

LIBERALS have been remarkably ungloating in response to the Great Embarrassment at the White House. Democrats have competed with Republicans in wringing their hands and pleading to ``put the whole matter behind and get on with the business of government.'' Were political opponents ever more regretful over a rival's predicament?

Writing under the headline, ``Why the Debacle Shouldn't Hearten Liberals,'' a professor of history, Robert J. McElvaine, has explained to readers of the New York Times op-ed page: ``Liberal goals may actually be better served if Mr. Reagan manages to escape continuing blame for the Iranian fiasco than if people lose faith in him, and hence, in government.''

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To avoid further charges of ``Beltway blood-letting,'' the members of the press - liberals all, as we know - have bent over backwards, scribbling editorials to remind themselves that it would be ``reprehensible'' for anybody actually to enjoy the scandal as a ``good story.''

The Washington Post columnist William Raspberry appeared to voice the liberal consensus when he observed that ``only a partisan fool could find pleasure'' in the unraveling.

Just about the only people not whispering in tones of funereal sadness are the neoconservatives, who seem to take it personally that the President has let them down. Are they ever cranky!

The other exception is TRB in the New Republic, who asked, ``Dear me. Am I really the only one here who's having a good time?'' and advised the pious mourners: ``Dry those tears and repeat after me: Ha. Ha. Ha.'' But few have joined the chortling chorus.

It is a most curious mood, this attack of terminal fair-mindedness that ends up making an issue of the Right to Laugh.

There are - excuse the expression - serious arguments for bringing the spirit of comedy as well as tragedy to bear upon this or any other political drama, and before we all smother our selves in black crepe, we ought to enumerate them:

1.In an ``Alice in Wonderland'' situation like the present, aswarm with March hares and dodo birds, what except free-form humor can possibly do justice to the surreal facts?

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2.The technique of a political coverup is to add even more starch to a Capitol Hill stuffed shirt, even more hot air to Foggy Bottom rhetoric, even more doublespeak to a civil servant's bureaucratese. As mischiefmakers tearfully invoke their patriotism until red-white-and-blue halos seem to appear, the bystander has two choices: to genuflect or to giggle. Bring on the clowns!

3.In the democratic process, nothing is more democratic than humor. The rule is: Whoever steps on the banana peel, goes down boom - be he king, president, millionaire, or panhandler. A banana peel is no respecter of persons, and it does no good to ask it, ``Do you know whom you're tripping?'' Such hauteur only doubles the fun. What a pratfall does do is distinguish between self-importance and dignity. Dignity is left standing.

4.Every historical event, from the Revolution to the emancipation of the slaves, has been seen more clearly, more sanely, for being seen with humor. Comedy sheds light with the same flaring match that ignites the hot-foot.

5.Yes, political humor can hurt, and at its worst, it can hurt gratuitously - maliciously. But that's the risk inherent in all humor. And even at its cruelest, humor never drops bombs, humor never mines harbors.

In fact, the great thing about humor is that it can make matters like the Iran-contra caper look absurd before the fact as well as after.

Too bad somebody didn't blow the idea away with a joke when it first came up. That would have been leadership of the most serious sort.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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