We all know that partisan politics has not only turned rancid, even dangerous, as Democrats and Republicans grow far, farther and even further apart. We have more respect for our so-called enemies than for each other— and, other than each other, we can’t even agree on who our enemies are. Witty observations have been notably rare in presidential politics for some time, and self-deprecating humor, used so effectively in the past by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, is almost nonexistent.

The bottom line is that there is not even a place for humor among politicos in 2024, unless it is delivered like a sledgehammer to demean the so-called opposition.

Joe Biden is regarded as friendly and approachable, but wittiness isn’t one of his trademarks. I’m old, and his humor seems dated even for me. Of course, we’re seeing a wave of concern about his age and whether he can even make it through another term without checking into a nursing home or the hereafter. The problem is that instead of presidential candidates getting younger, as seemed to be the promise of John F. Kennedy’s election at the age of 43 some 63 years ago, our current president, at 80, was the oldest in history when elected. Meanwhile, the leading Republican candidate will be 78 if elected in November, edging out Ronald Reagan for second place on the list of most doddering occupants who ever tottered into the Oval Office. As a fellow geriatric, I reserve the right to be self-deprecating on this topic due to my advanced age. No offense to my peers.

Wit denotes, among other assets, intelligence, resilience, self-confidence, creativity and positivity. Wielded at the wrong place and time, however, it might be a politician’s undoing.

There was a time when President Harry Truman, a plain-spoken Missourian, was regarded as a little too crude and coarse, because he used words like “damn” and “hell,” which were shunned in polite conversation at the time. In fact, he became known as “Give-‘em-hell Harry,” to which he said: “I don’t give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”

Truman didn’t have a lot of good things to say about being president, but this only served to make him more colorful. Here’s an example: “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.” It seems the more you humorously downplay your job as a public servant, the more the voters want you to keep it.

Biden is chided for using dated terms like “record player” and “malarkey,” which is one of his favorite words. But he is clearly self-deprecating which opens the door for at least one effective one-liner as a candidate: “I’m a gaffe machine, but, my God, what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth.”

Nobody made fun of himself to make a point like Abraham Lincoln, who upon being called “two-faced” in a debate, quipped: “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” But his humor was more anecdotal than a series of one-liners, and he could use his wit as a weapon to mortify, even humiliate, a critic or political opponent.

Whatever happened to putting witty people in the White House, whatever their party? John F. Kennedy, both witty and young, attacked by opponents for having a rich father some believed to be buying his way into the White House, wasn’t afraid to “go there,” as we like to say today. In a press conference when successfully running for U.S. Senator, he announced: “I have just received a wire from my generous Daddy; ‘Dear Jack, don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’”

When asked his opinion of economists giving conflicting advice, Kennedy responded, “Ask four economists their opinions and you’ll get five different answers.”

Lincoln, a Democrat before carrying the banner of the first Republican presidential candidate, stated shortly before switching parties: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

But the President best known for his witticisms since Watergate was Ronald Reagan, another Democrat-turned-Republican who was both old and witty at the time. His best-known quips were often delivered to blunt the sharp edge of divisive issues.

Sometimes there are no politically safe answers to some questions, and Reagan was a master of using humor as a diversion from potentially controversial opinions.

Example? “I’m not worried about the deficit. It’s big enough to take care of itself.”

And our elderly office holders and candidates should take heed of this classic example of how Reagan disarmed those who questioned his age and ability to do his job as president: “Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying.”

Perhaps the best-known example of Reagan’s ability to turn a negative into a positive was during a debate against 56-year-old Democrat Walter Mondale during the presidential campaign of 1984 when millions of people were watching in prime time. The issue of his advanced age was brought up by the moderator:

“I will not make age an issue in this campaign,” Reagan responded in a somber tone. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Even Mondale, who was vice president at the time and a multiple-term senator before that, laughed at the response.  Perhaps it is the best example of how humor, in televised debates at least, triumphs over factual responses and knowledge, because Reagan allegedly “mangled the facts” in those debates, as Time magazine subsequently reported. It was an example of one soundbite prevailing over the substance of a political debate. Reagan won in a landslide anyway and was later credited with breaking up the Soviet Union— and that was nothing to laugh at.

You can see how he disarmed criticism about his age by exaggerating his agedness even more.  You’ll notice that many humorous responses don’t resolve an issue or counter an allegation. They allow the conversation to move on without getting bogged down on issues that can never be agreed upon. At the same time, they remind us that the speaker is mortal and one of us, regardless of political views.

Contrarily, you cannot make a joke out of every issue. Timing is crucial if humor is to effectively neutralize the issue or criticism behind the question.

Father, Son Known for Different Brands of Humor

Now George W. Bush is better known for his mispronunciations than his wit, with statements like “they misunderestimated me” and “I’m the decider and I decide what’s best.” His father, George H. W. Bush, was known for his dry wit, which can be misinterpreted if taken at face value. That was the case with the following observation about his son, the president: “I think when he gets his library, it should have a children’s section.”

As was the case with Reagan, another former liberal Democrat who was elected President, Donald Trump has his unique brand of humor.

Trump’s humor is seemingly designed to be offensive. Followers cheer his observations, which are both controversial and outrageous, typically dispensing insulting nicknames and unflattering physical descriptions. Self-deprecating he is not. But he is pretty old. I mean the guy somehow confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House when he unleashed his storm troopers in a treasonous government overthrow attempt, because he got them to believe  he  won an election he lost by more than seven million votes to “Sleepy” Joe Biden. And he continues to be confused about whether he was running against Biden or Barack Obama in 2020.

Humor is defined as something amusing that often elicits a smile or laughter. It is true that you see these  reactions among the Tump faithful to his rambling observations about his perceived enemies and adversaries at his rallies — a list that grows longer, and more ominous, by the day in his revenge campaign. The problem is that the more we make fun of Trump, the stronger he grows and the more his supporters cling to every spiteful  and malicious word he utters toward anyone who crosses him. He makes fun of how people look, the clothes they wear— like Haley’s dress when she vowed to go on after losing in New Hampshire. It is useless pointing how unkind this is, because kindness and empathy seem to be regarded as weaknesses—part of a woke agenda— by many conservative Republican voters.

Humorist David Kamp — a long-time ridiculer of Trump— recently announced that he would no longer make fun of the absurdities that come tumbling vindictively out of Trump’s mouth and that “the stakes are too high to treat him as a figure of fun.” This kind of funniness is scary, and we may end up laughing away while American democracy slips from our grasp.