Quick: Who are the three wittiest politicians in Germany? Well? Or at least the top two of the republic’s most humorous representatives of the people? Nothing? Nothing at all? Not even one? One with a sense of humor? Some claim Angela Merkel is sometimes quite funny. No? Very well then...
In Germany, politics and public displays of humor don't seem to really go together. Unlike in the U.S.: There, politicians try to use humor to attract attention, win sympathy or counter criticism.
The squinting Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, gave humor a try. He glibly countered the charge of being two-faced, “If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”
And science observes: In America, humor plays an increasingly important role in political communication. “I think the more we have had media involved in our presidential campaigns, the more humor has become a force for presidents to use both in becoming elected and in becoming an effective president,” writes communication scientist John Meyer.
Therefore the speech that Obama will give on Saturday is not totally unimportant. He will speak at the “White House Correspondents’ Dinner.” And what is expected of him is no less than entertaining the attending journalists, celebrities (among others Lindsay Lohan and George Clooney) and the entire nation.
The dinner has been in existence since 1920, organized by the White House Correspondents’ Association. The journalists who report from the White House and about the president have teamed up here.
The sometimes rather funny late night moderator Jimmy Kimmel will host the program this year. Like, for example, before him, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien or Stephen Colbert, who, using George W. Bush as a punching bag, turned in one of the most aggressive appearances ever.
It will not be easy for Kimmel: “I’m nervous,” he told Washington insider magazine Politico. The audience at the dinner is considered difficult and discerning. The pressure is great. “I’m going to be sitting next to the first lady,” Kimmel explained to the New York Times. “And I’ll be nervous about my performance on top of that.”
But the pressure is not only great for the professional showman, but also for the political professional, Barack Obama. Whereby: Presidents up to now have mostly taken advantage of their chance. Here a few of the best dinner appearances:
At his first speech last year, Obama did remarkably well. He made fun of the conspiracy theories about his birth certificate: "Michele Bachmann is here, though, I understand, and she is thinking about running for president, which is weird because I hear she was born in Canada. Yes, Michele, this is how it starts. Just letting you know. (...) Tim Pawlenty — he seems all-American, but have you heard his real middle name, Tim Hosni Pawlenty? What a shame."
Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, proved in 2004 that he can laugh at himself. "It really gets me when the critics say I haven't done enough for the economy. I mean, look what I've done for the book publishing industry. You've heard some of the titles: 'Big Lies;' 'The Lies of George W. Bush;' 'The Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.' I'd like to tell you I've read each of these books, but that would be a lie." It's also worth seeing how Bush appeared together with the great parodist Steve Bridges.
A high point of the presidential performances at the dinner was certainly the video that Bill Clinton presented. Clinton staged himself as a lame duck, made fun of the last days in his term of office: The most powerful man in the world cutting hedges, washing the car — or bicycling through the White House. Also funny was the corresponding speech.
And in 1996, at the peak of the brutal political conflict between him and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, which almost led to a political standstill in Washington, Clinton said at the dinner, "Newt Gingrich is right over there. He's the fellow next to the baby raccoon and the iguana. Mr. Speaker, as long as you're here, I think, out in public, in front of everybody, we ought to do a little work on the budget negotiations. You give me my Medicare plan, and you can have my mocha puff and chocolate sauce."
And now Obama once again, in the year of the presidential election. That will not be decided by the speech. However, when it comes to humor, the sitting president appears to have the advantage over his probable challenger Mitt Romney. He has not yet been convincing in his attempts to use humor — not even when laughing about his own attempts.