President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill used humor as a softening agent. They would fight over issues during the day but often get together in the evening and tell each other Irish jokes. Their humor made sure they could disagree without being disagreeable. They also got a lot done.
A Reagan speechwriter, Peter Robinson, later wrote: “Reagan taught me to appreciate the uses of humor.... But he also taught me to appreciate the meaning of humor. The world contains more good than bad, more courage than cowardice, and more reasons for smiles than for tears. Laughter is a profession of faith.”
Good humor is also a form of affection, a graceful admission that the somethings need not divide us.
Abraham Lincoln often used self-deprecatory remarks to get the country through hard times. An opponent once told Lincoln that he was being two-faced, to which he responded: “If I had two faces do you think I’d be wearing this thing?”
A journalist of the time, Henry Villard, remarked, “It would be hard to find one who tells better jokes, enjoys them better and laughs oftener than Abraham Lincoln.”
These days, if politicians in Washington are funny at all, it can be heard at the annual political roasts hosted by journalists, the Gridiron Dinner and the White House Correspondents Dinner. But those affairs are mostly private.