Mitt Romney probably should not try to joke about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. It’s potentially offensive and, worse, he’s not very good at it.
The Republican presidential nominee has the right idea. Humor is an excellent way to connect with voters on a personal level, a task with which he has had a tough time. Some people make it look easy. Romney too often does not.
A much talked about example blew up before the Republican National Convention at a campaign event in Commerce, Mich., where his nostalgic recollections abruptly turned ugly:
“I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised,” Romney told the crowd, “where both of us were born. Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital, I was born in Harper Hospital. No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”
The crowd didn’t just laugh at Romney’s indirect reference to the loony birther movement that refuses to believe Obama was born in the U.S. They roared -- while Romney basked in their approval. But, as quickly as you can say “Twitter feed,” the world was responding. Where some heard a laugh line, others heard a subtle salute to those who would deny the very validity of Obama’s presidency.
Romney would later repeat what he has said several times, that he does not believe the paranoid birther narrative. Quite frankly, I don’t believe Romney intended to spark yet another distraction from his main issue, the economy. But he apparently couldn’t help himself.
After months of running about even with the president, despite high unemployment, Romney’s embarrassing attempts at humor feed an image he would rather not send: a well-meaning straight arrow who is woefully out of synch with the audience he is trying to reach.
For example, there was the NASCAR race in Florida last winter where he mocked the plastic ponchos on rain-soaked fans. “I like those fancy raincoats you bought,” he said. “Really sprung for the big bucks.” Har, har.
Or there was his joking reaction to the dust-up over his having strapped a cage carrying his dog to the top of the family car years ago: “PETA is not happy that my dog likes fresh air.”
And there’s his odd-outburst captured on YouTube of a line from a pop hit by the Baha Men as he smiled for an impromptu photo with a group of African American teens: “Who let the dogs out? Woof, woof!”
As my son has counseled me on -- I am sorry to admit -- too many occasions, there’s nothing more sad than an old dad trying to sound cool to young people.
Maybe we need to lighten up about Romney’s birther joke, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus says. After all, he pointed out on CNN, the president jokes about his birth certificate, too.
True, but Obama jokes at the expense of the birthers who try to marginalize his very right to hold office. Romney was joking as if the birthers might have a point.
Humor is not just a laughing matter. For a salesman, a singleton looking for a mate or a politician seeking votes, humor is pure gold when it works and pure hell when it doesn’t. Romney’s awkward misfires may tell us something about his difficulties in connecting with voters.
Evolutionary psychologists and others tell us that humor may be a survival and bonding mechanism. Laughing with others is a signal that we share the same values and beliefs. Humor helped us humans stop fighting long enough to build the relationships beyond our immediate family and tribe that become the building blocks of culture and civilization.
A joke is “like a little brain scan,” said NPR science reporter Shankar Vedantam in a recent story on the serious science of humor. “When we laugh, we reveal what’s inside us”
That’s what makes joke gaffes a special problem for politicians, regardless of party. Vice President Joe Biden certainly understands. Rightly or wrongly, listeners wonder whether the gaffe makers are accidently revealing what they really believe.