The Truth, Mainly - 12/05/1994

Republicans taking their cues from Twain
by Leon Satterfield

Mark Twain said the best way to tell a funny story is to look dumb. The new GOP congressional leadership is very good at it. Telling funny stories, I mean.

"The humorous story is told gravely," Twain says. "The teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it." When the audience catches on, the speaker should look up "with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at."

I'd be the last to accuse Republican honchos of reading someone as impolitic as Twain, but more and more of them seem to be following his advice on how to be funny. They're just full of droll stories told gravely.

Bob Dole, incoming Senate Majority Leader, told Bill Clinton "I want to let you know right up front that we want to work together where we can."

Newt Gingrich, apparent Speaker of the House, said about the same thing: "We'd like to work with the president and find some common ground."

Neither of them snorted Co-Cola out their noses when they spoke. Didn't even crack a grin. Had anyone snickered, they'd both have looked up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what was being laughed at.

These guys are good.

Especially when you remember that both of them did everything except break kneecaps to sabotage Clinton's first two years in office.

And even more especially when you remember that Rep. Gingrich gravely labeled Democrats as "the enemies of normal people," thus implying Republicans are the friends of normal people.

Didn't even wink and nudge us in the ribs when he said it.

To be fair we should note that not all GOP leaders are that funny.

Sen. Jesse Helms, heir to the Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship, observed the anniversary of JFK's assassination by saying that President Clinton "better watch out" if he visits North Carolina. He "better have a bodyguard." It was a joke.

Well, sort of. A reporter said Sen. Helms said it "with a bit of a laugh."

Ever notice how some people are scarier laughing than looking grim?

But the new leadership doesn't really hit full stride as deadpan humorists until they start talking about their favorite subject, trickledown economics and how, if we just let normal people (read rich Republicans here) get richer, all our boats will rise.

What we need to do, according to Rep. Dick Armey, probable new House Majority Leader, is get rid of the capital gains tax (you know, the tax that normal people are always beset by), cut way back on income tax, increase defense spending, and thereby reduce the national deficit.

If that formula doesn't make sense to you, it's because you're not normal, you weirdo you. Normal people know that if we just go back to Reaganomics, we'll wipe out the deficit quicker than you can plot a Laffer curve.

(It's not called a Laffer curve for nothing, I just now recognize as I read the word aloud. It's another of those inside jokes Democrats don't catch on to.)

When abnormal folks point out that the national debt quadrupled during the Reagan-Bush years, Republicans say, without snickering, yeah, but that was because Democrats controlled Congress and Congress controlled spending.

But J. J. Exon, who was there, reminds us that "the Democratic Congress always approved spending below the budgets recommended by Reagan and Bush."

Which means if the GOP—whose leaders now yearn deeply for a balanced budget—had controlled Congress during the 80s, the national debt would have gone even higher.

So are these guys funny or what?

The joke gets even more hilarious when you realize that Armey's proposal would bring in a lot less money because it would eliminate the progressive income tax whereby rich people pay a higher tax rate than poor people. Under his plan, everybody would pay a flat 17 percent—thus achieving the same kind of equity Twain talks about when he reminds us that both rich and poor are equally prohibited from stealing bread and sleeping under bridges.

Closer to home, John Breslow, our formerly Democrat State Auditor, became a Republican and instant deadpan humorist just after the election. He said he suddenly realized Republican philosophy is better.

"It's a philosophy," he said solemnly, "of empowering people."

Normal people, presumably. Like Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole and Dick Armey and Jesse Helms. But not abnormal people, I can imagine the normals saying. Not people without money. Don't want to empower the criminal class.

To which Mark Twain replies from across the Great Divide, "There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." He says it gravely as though there's nothing funny about it.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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