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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

An acute shortage in Washington



George W. Bush
Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Washington in the fall of 2005 suffers from an acute shortage of humor, especially of the self-deprecating variety.

The entire collection of Tom DeLay one-liners could be easily written on the back of a playing card with room left over for a short grocery list. Nobody I know is dining out on Sen. Harry Reid's, D-Nevada, or Sen. Bill Frist's, R-Tennessee, one-liners.

On at least one occasion some four years ago, George W. Bush showed he could be genuinely self-deprecating. At the 2001 dinner of the Gridiron Club, a group of Washington reporters who attempt to needle the powerful in song and skit, Bush in his remarks poked fun at himself.

Examples: "These stories about my intelligence capacity do get under my skin a bit. For a while, I thought even my own staff believed them. There on my schedule first thing every morning it said, 'Intelligence Briefing.'"

Bush told of calling former Democratic National Committee Chairman and fellow Texan Bob Strauss for advice on "how I should deal with this perception (that I wasn't up to the job). Strauss said: 'Just remember, Mr. President, you can fool some of the people all of the time ... and those are the people you need to concentrate on.'"

Alluding to his verbal misstatements and mispronunciations, Bush said, "You know what Garrison Keillor said the other day. He said that 'George Bush's lips are where words go to die.'"

No, President Bush did not write these lines. A truly gifted professional named Landon Parvin did. But Bush did deliver them knowing they'd be quoted.

Self-deprecating humor from a powerful individual can make an appealing personal statement about the speaker: "I may be up on this platform in the spotlight and in front of this microphone, but I'm not so self-important that I'm taking myself all that seriously."

Very few politicians understood the value of self-deprecating humor better than the late Morris K. Udall, D-Arizona, who ran for the 1976 presidential nomination, or U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, who served as Senate Republican whip.

Mo Udall liked to tell about a time he was campaigning in the all-important New Hampshire primary when he went into a small-town barber shop and announced, "I'm Mo Udall, and I'm running for president," to which the barber quipped, "Yeah, we were just laughing about that."

Following the typical flowery introduction every senator is required to endure, Alan Simpson would quip, "Thank you, that's a lot better than the introduction I received the other night in Laramie (or Cheyenne, or Philadelphia), where the master of ceremonies said, 'Now for the latest goat from Washington ... Alan Simpson.'"

Nobody was better at using humor to deflect criticism of performance in office than Ronald Reagan. Criticized about his leisurely office hours, which rarely began before 10 a.m. and almost always ended before 5 p.m., Reagan confounded his critics with this line: "It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?"

Some might argue that Washington humor ought to be in short supply when the country is at war. But that didn't prevent President Bush from appearing in a tastelessly unfunny tape at last year's Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner, featuring the president in the Oval Office looking under the couch and behind the drapes for those still elusive weapons of mass destruction.

It's not like Washington lacks raw material for humor. How about DeLay pointedly asking, "How do you know you really have power until you abuse it?" And how about those terminally timid Democrats on Capitol Hill? If Scripture is accurate in saying that the meek will inherit the earth, then Senate Democrats can look forward to being land barons.

Has anyone else ever watched C-SPAN cover a three-hour House debate on cloning? What a scene. Two hundred six Caucasian males in blue suits, white shirts and red ties all declaring their all-out opposition against cloning.

Admit it, you're smiling.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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