By all evidence, McCain's over-wound spin masters figured out something pretty important yesterday: in the realm of do-or-die strategic message-making, humor flatters where spin insults.
Spin is: I think you are just dumb enough to believe this: (insert your narrowly-construed-yet-arguably-true, focus-grouped message-of-the-day here. Go ahead, all candidates do.)
Humor is: I think you are smart enough to understand what's really going on. That blank is then filled in with something that everyone in the world already knows, with the possible exception of the person who is speaking. Something like: "I screwed up."
"Joe the Plumber recently signed a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses."
That's exactly what McCain did yesterday in his back-to-back appearances at the annual Al Smith dinner and then on late-night television with his frenemy David Letterman. McCain gave a speech every speechwriter and humorist evangelizer like me daydreams about. For the eight years of a previous administration I stared into a computer screen and imagined the lines that might redeem Bill Clinton at his toughest moments and more often than not he picked the ones that were right for him and pulled them off brilliantly. When the history of the 2008 campaign is written, Thursday October 16 will be recorded as one of John McCain's best days. Rather than campaigning in swing states, he spoke to the swing part of people's brains—the part of the brain that processes messages that otherwise go unspoken.
Seemingly for the first time in months, McCain spoke honestly to the American people in his most comfortable voice. With each laugh he earned, people who otherwise do not like him said, "Hey, I kinda like this guy."
Perhaps it took standing in the archdiocese or sitting across from America's high priest of comedy for this famous “straight-talker” to remember the Cardinal rule of humor: self-deprecating candor costs (almost) nothing and buys back (nearly) everything -- specifically credibility and likeability.
Take this line for example: "Joe the Plumber recently signed a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses."
Surely McCain detests that his wife's family wealth is a topic of conversation, yet he earned loud laughs with this daring joke. Later that evening, Senator Obama delivered a joke with essentially the same punch line that went flat. McCain figured out that in mano-a-mano humor debates, the winning strategy is to figure out the worst thing your opponent can say about you and then find the way to say it yourself.
The real maneuver McCain pulled off yesterday was spending his hard-earned likeability and credibility on a message that has become increasingly hard to believe: that he genuinely respects Barack Obama.
After so many self-deprecating jokes, McCain offered this tribute:
"My opponent is an impressive fellow in many ways. Political opponents can have a little trouble seeing the best in each other. I have seen this man at his best. I admire his great skill, energy and determination. It's not for nothing that he has inspired so many folks in his own party and beyond. Senator Obama talks about making history and he's made quite a bit of it already.
“There was a time when the mere invitation of an African-American citizen to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage and an insult in many quarters. Today, it's worlds away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. And good riddance. I can't wish my opponent luck, but I do wish him well."
With that, John McCain was not only the funniest person in the room, he was also the biggest.
"I haven't had this much fun since my last interrogation," McCain said to Letterman. Of course, the actual fun he was having was evident to all. But yesterday's real punch line is this: who needs attack ads when McCain's best weapon is his ability to go after himself—and laugh while we laugh with him.
Once persuadable voters hear John McCain's most honest voice, they may give another listen to his actual message.