Electing a Punch Line

When choosing a presidential ticket, a satirist makes certain demands. Is a candidate smart? Trustworthy? And will he provide bucketfuls of material?

You may not be aware of the existence of one particular special interest group in Washington, D.C.—the Association of American Political Satirists. I hope I’m not “speaking out of school,” but here goes.

We have yet to be referred to in the MSM (“Mainstream Media”) as “the powerful” Association of American Political Satirists, or “influential” or even “extant,” but we do yield considerable influence here in our nation’s capital and, generally, on the course of human history. (Not to boast.) We’re not an enormous organization, numerically speaking, though even that much is hard to ascertain. Every time we try to get an accurate count of the membership, one of us starts parodying the tally and it invariably degenerates into something resembling a Florida presidential election recount.

American voters tend to make their decisions based on a variety of vectors. Professional political satirists employ rather more scientific criteria. Namely: who will provide us with better material over the next four years?

At any rate, we meet every fourth October at an undisclosed location (usually a bar offering 2-for-1 drinks and a 4 to 8:00 Happy Hour) in order to decide who to endorse for the presidency. Invariably, one of the members will pipe up, “You mean, Whom to endorse.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Honestly.

I’ve just returned from our meeting and, well, “contentious” hardly begins to describe what went on. I’ll get around to explaining, but first, let me give you a sense of the vectors and parameters, as they say on the Lehrer NewsHour. As well as of the memes, as they say at The Huffington Post.

By and large, American voters tend to make their decisions based on a variety of vectors, parameters and—to be sure—memes: Is the candidate empathetic? Does he show a grasp of the challenges facing the Ohio plumber seeking to incorporate and yet simultaneously avoid the Alternative Minimum Tax? Is the candidate likely to bring about a spirit of bipartisanship in Washington? Is he, say, black? Arab? Is he mentally unhinged and scary? Will he make America safer? Where does he stand on cap-and-trade? On cap-and-gown? Is he absolutely, truly committed to ensuring that more federal money will be spent analyzing Grizzly Bear DNA in Montana? Can he explain, moreover, how they obtain Grizzly Bear DNA in the first place? Does one approach the bear and say, “Hey, big guy, may I have some DNA?” Or do they have to distract them or even shoot them from a helicopter? Does the candidate hate—nay, despise—greedy, loathsome, despicable, scum-sucking, parasitical Wall Street hyena-jackal-fiend-ass-persons as much as the rest of us? Finally, as president, will the candidate take that call at 3 AM, or sleep through it?

These, historically, are the criteria by which Americans have chosen their leaders. There are so many variables. A recent book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for instance, has now pretty well established beyond doubt that Lincoln’s margin of victory in the 1860 election was provided by NASCAR devotees, despite there being none in 1860. The complexity of American politics!

Professional political satirists, however (that is, the AAPS membership) employ rather more scientific criteria. Namely: who will provide us with better material over the next four years?

As everyone agrees, the 2008 election is indeed the most critical since the emergence of Cro-Magnon Man 40,000 years ago in what was then the Dordogne and is now Le Departement de Dordogne. Never have the stakes been higher. The presidential elections that took place during the Civil War, World War I, the Depression, and World War II were elections for dog-catcher compared with this one.

Against such a background, the political satirist must be hard-nosed, hard-hearted and—it must be said—self-interested. The needs of the nation are not necessarily convergent with the needs of the deadline satirist.

A president who, say, would in all likelihood devote himself to the common good, to working diligently and ceaselessly without regard for political advantage, who would strive to put America’s house in order and restore our standing overseas with the (often smelly) foreigners; a leader who would level with the American people, keeps his hands off the interns, not engage in public psycho dramas, who would govern from the center, who would not put, say, an Ohioan plumber on the Supreme Court—such a president might be satisfactory on some levels. But as material, well, he would be of little use to one who makes his (or indeed, her) living by making fun of public servants.

Going into yesterday’s meeting, there was a palpable pro-McCain-Palin sense. By “palpable” I mean you could sort of—you know—feel it. AAPS has long been an unofficial booster of John McCain. He’s been good to us. Not as good—God knows—as President Clinton; but up there. What other candidate has 8 homes and 13 cars and has the temperament of a meth-mouthed snapping turtle? Really, what’s not to love in John McCain, satire-wise?

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As if he had not already been good enough to us, then came his nomination of Sarah Palin. Here, truly, was a gift from the gods of satire. Purest manna. Juvenal never had it this good. Not since George H.W. Bush put forth J. Danforth (yes, we at AAPS remember his full name; it’s our job) Quayle has a presidential nominee done so much, for so many, with so little. This is but one reason why G.H.W. Bush is still so beloved by satirists; though to be sure he is also cherished for having left us a son who over the past eight years has provided us with a proverbial embarrassment of riches.

So you might have assumed that it would have been a straight “up-and-down” clean vote for McCain-Palin and repair to the bar. But no. On the first ballot, the membership split 50-60.

I know “50-60” doesn’t sound like a split, technically, but bear in mind these are satirists. Nothing is ever simple with us. At any rate, about half the membership voted for an Obama-Biden administration, on the grounds, as one (possibly already drunk) member put it, “This is a historic opportunity! The son of a Kenyan goatherder, educated at a madrassa. A former bomb-maker for Weathermen!”

There were a number of “Hear, hear!”s, followed by heated discussion. We actually had to turn on the air conditioners.

What followed after that isn’t easy to describe. Satirists, when they are en famille (a French term meaning something) don’t argue in a particularly linear or even (and I say this all love in my heart) logical way. But essentially it boiled to as follows: Barack Obama is a perfectly nice, fundamentally decent guy, but a little, um, “Harvard Law Reviewy” and a little, well, um, “earnest?” Satirists can work with earnest, but it’s not a long-hanging fruit by any means. We prefer, well, something broader. A president who can’t speak English, say, or who talks to God and launches cockamamie wars.

So for a while, it looked like it was going to go against Barack. But then a rump faction—AAPS teems with rump factions—mounted a very convincing case for Vice President Joe Biden. They presented a PowerPoint—the first in AAPS history, bolstered, I might add, with a somewhat questionable algorithm allegedly devised at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena or wherever it is—arguing that a Vice President Joe Biden would provide 3.4 opportunities for a “Richter scale” satirical event— every week.

That’s not a bad average, though it falls short of the 3.6 achieved by the Clinton administration between 1998 and 2000. Biden is, to be sure, that rare combination of substance, decency, and comic ore. How fitting that he comes from Pennsylvania, a mining state.

Hereupon, the Palinistas—as that rump AAPS faction is known—hotly countered that a Palin vice presidency would “blow Biden out of the water”—by a factor of 12.6. (I personally didn’t get the 12.6 part; I can’t personally vouch for the math; I’m just reporting here what was said.)

Well, as I say, it got pretty hot, and by the end no one was speaking to each other. I know who I’m voting for. As for AAPS, it remained true to its founding motto: Country Second!