Standing in front of a hall full of the nation’s most notable journalists – and CNN’s Piers Morgan – President Barack Obama had a confession. “I look in the mirror and I have to admit,” he said glumly, “I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be.”
No one, of course, ran to write up a front page story, or tweet their amazement. This was the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at Washington, D.C.’s Hilton Hotel, an annual event where the sitting president and a chosen comedian (this year it was Conan O’Brien’s second stint after performing in 1995) get to whip out a few jokes in front of tables filled with journalists and celebrities alike. The aforementioned Piers Morgan was seated, somewhat bafflingly, with Gerard Butler and former Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Obama is known to be particularly good at telling a few jokes. In 2011, he demolished Donald Trump, who was then thinking about running for president. Obama sarcastically said Trump once had the difficult decision of who to fire on The Apprentice: Lil John, Meatloaf or Gary Busey? “These are the kind the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night,” he revealed, to raucous approval and an embarrassed Trump.
What is striking for Britons, especially when we see Obama playing Daniel Day-Lewis playing himself in a mock-film trailer, is how far removed such a comedic stunt is from our political world. While Obama’s lines may be well researched by witty speech writers, he delivers them with ease and he is not the first US President to do so. The US has a political system that is far more fluid and diverse than ours and the anti-intellectual bent in American politics and culture embraces elected officials who don’t need a good degree but must, crucially, be down to earth.
Can anyone imagine David Cameron reeling off jokes with such aplomb? Even when Ed Miliband delivered his best line – “In the light of his U-turn on alcohol pricing, can the Prime Minister tell us, is there anything he could organise in a brewery?” – it was said rather staidly. Worse still, Cameron could have had a quick, witty response but instead said he would have a party to celebrate Ed Balls staying in his job. It was car crash stuff, but it was typical. Prime Ministers are just not fun or funny: Gordon Brown was grumpy, Tony Blair was smug and John Major was dull. Many of Margaret Thatcher’s colleagues claimed she had a brilliant wit but if you listened to the long list of Thatcher anecdotes told over the ten days of national mourning, she came across as cutting and self-inflated. Even Charles Moore, her biographer, admitted she didn’t understand one-liners or double entendres.
What this boils down to is how we see our leaders. Richard Hofstadter 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, spoke of the country’s distrust of the aloof intellectual, preferring the more practical and patriotic intelligence of those not in tune with elite culture. He referred particularly to the 1952 and 1956 Presidential Elections, where General Dwight D. Eisenhower overcame the academic Adlai Stevenson: a practical, patriotic man overcoming the narrowness of the armchair intellect. In one particularly relevant line, Hofstadter notes how the US education system breeds an out of touch and unfunny type of American: “There is an element of moral overstrain and a curious lack of humour among American educationalists which will perhaps always remain a mystery to those more worldly minds that are locked out of their mental universe.”
Indeed, while Obama may be an intellect and aloof, he still has a great connection with voters that created a grass-roots campaign in 2007 that propelled him to the presidency. Just like most Americans wanted a beer with Bush, most want to hang out with Obama – and Michelle, of course – because they’re relatable and ‘cool’. And talking of aloof, Obama even mocks that side of him – as he did in Washington on Saturday night. Thatcher may have been able to deliver some decent lines, but she was never self-deprecating.
What Hofstadter said about US education breeding individuals with a curious lack of humour rings true for Britain, a nation where we prefer to have aloof intellects running the country. The Americans like their leaders practical and pithy: remember Clinton cracking up with Yeltsin and Reagan delivering his “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” line to Walter Mondale in 1984.
Can we Britons ever break this vicious cycle of unfunny and characterless prime ministers? I think I know what the Mayor of London’s answer would be.