Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A Little Presidential Humor (on the occasional of the election in Ukraine)

Did you hear the one about the guy who got elected president of his country because he plays the president on TV? This week it’s proving to be no joke. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko (I love all that alliteration) has just been trounced by forty-one-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky. No question that the status quo in Ukraine needs some improvement. There’s a lackluster economy, charges of corruption in high places, and an ongoing feud with Putin’s Russia, which has made major inroads on Ukraine’s eastern border. So what are Zelensky’s credentials to tackle all this? Well, he’s an actor and comedian with absolutely no political experience. Zilch.  Zip. But he has been awfully appealing on Servant of the People, a TV series in which he plays a high school history teacher who somehow finds himself elevated into his nation’s highest office. And what are his real-lie views? His plans? His allegiances? Well, no one exactly knows. But they like him . . . they really like him.

It’s not only citizens of Ukraine who put their faith in celebrities from other fields when it comes time to choose a political leader. Seems as though I’m always hearing about political satirists of the Jon Stewart ilk running for office in Asia and the Middle East. (They may not be able to solve things, but at least they know what the issues are.) In the U.S. there’s been a long comic tradition of humorists launching presidential campaigns. In 1928, the beloved Will Rogers campaigned on the “Anti--Bunk” ticket, vowing that if elected he would resign. In 1940, Gracie Allen (the female half of the Burns and Allen duo) toured the country announcing her mock-presidential aspirations. Asked whether as president she would recognize Russia, she apparently responded, "I don't know. I meet so many people …"  And to show that she would tolerate no vice in her administration, she refused to name a running-mate.

Starting in the late 1960s, when political comedy got more serious, Pat Paulsen boosted his career by perennially running for president as the candidate of the S.T.A.G. party . (Theoretically, this stood for the Straight Talking American Government Party.) His campaign slogans included "We Can Be Decisive, Probably" and "United We Sit.” And he vowed to amend the First Amendment, requiring that all obscene and pornographic material be turned over to the president for close scrutiny. 

Now I hear that Roseanne Barr is serious (or as serious as she ever gets) about running for president on the Green Party ticket, promising to eliminate taxes and currency altogether. (Instead, we’d institute the barter system.) I think it’s pretty clear she’s not going to win. But of course we’ve had Hollywood celebrities who made it all the way to the White House not so very long ago. First and foremost there was Ronald Reagan, who was an actor (and president of the Screen Actors Guild) before he became Governor of California and then a president beloved by many. And now the U.S. is led by a guy whose qualifications for the presidency included being a zillionaire real-estate tycoon and also the irascible host of a TV reality show called The Apprentice. Lots of voters seemed to conclude that firing people on TV was good practice for firing up the nation.

What of those actors who, like Volodymyr Zelensky, have played presidents? I’m talking about, for instance, Kevin Kline in Dave and Michael Douglas in The American President. And, of course, Martin Sheen in TV’s The West Wing. Should we consider electing one of them? Hey, what about Veep’s Selina Meyer?

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