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What's So Funny About WMDs?

By David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer


What's a little weapons of mass destruction humor among friends?

"Well, um," Al Franken had to think about that. "A comedian can joke about weapons of mass destruction," the liberal comic and soon-to-be radio host said. "I would say anybody in the world who has not ordered troops into battle based on getting rid of someone's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction can joke about weapons of mass destruction."

So, non-commanders-in-chiefs can joke about WMD?

"Probably Rumsfeld shouldn't do it either," Franken responded.

President Bush tried to do just that. At Wednesday night's annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner -- an event where presidents traditionally let down their hair -- the most guarded of presidents made an honest, though perhaps stale, attempt at humor. But the talking heads, the television powerful, the broadcast journalists, did laugh.

Donning a tuxedo, looking very non-Texan, Mr. Bush quipped, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere," as slides showed him looking outside White House windows and under furniture. There was applause from the assembled dignitaries, who included his former chief weapons inspector, David Kay (along with many of this writer's seniors at CBS News).

"Nope, no weapons over there," said Mr. Bush, as another picture showed the leader of the free world looking under a couch. "Maybe under here," he continued to more laughter. And so the flap began.

"If George Bush thinks his deceptive rationale for going to war is a laughing matter, then he's even more out of touch than we thought," said Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in a campaign statement.

Slow down Mr. Senator.

"It's a silly controversy," said the liberal satirist and talk-show host Harry Shearer. "I don't think the president should joke about dead bodies. But he didn't. I think the president, as almost all presidents in that situation, is guilty of bad comedy.

"It's just cheap advantage grabbing by the Democrats to say it's in bad taste," Shearer continued. "I keep sort of a running tab on the number of public officials or corporate officials who are forced to apologize on a regular basis for awkward attempts at humor. It's an instrument that is best handled by professionals, much like scalpels and other sharp tools."

A little levity inside Washington is always welcomed, craved by some. It is a city that takes itself entirely too seriously, full of politicians and wannabe politicians, who live their lives as if they will all be asked someday, 'Have you inhaled?'"

In this effort to lighten the mood, presidential self-deprecation is the standard for the Washington social circuit. Nevertheless, should certain material be off-limits to presidents?

Possibly. Kerry wasn't the only person complaining. Some soldiers' families were offended. Democratic congressmen railed, but that's to be expected.
It's an old story. When stiffs want to be funny and comedians want to be taken seriously, both fail.

"The president of any major corporation who tries to do jokes before the annual report will do just as well or badly," Shearer said. "That's what [Mr. Bush] needs to be compared to; he does not need be compared to Jay Leno or David Letterman. He needs to be measured against the president of PepsiCo while revenue is down."

PepsiCo Chief Executive Officer could not be reached for comment. Certainly though, the analogy works. This was a hard week for Mr. Bush.

The president's former counterterrorism czar said in public testimony that by "invading Iraq the president has greatly undermined the war on terrorism." The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is criticizing Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, over her refusal to speak to them in public. Mum has been Condy's word, at Mr. Bush's behest, arguing it is a question of executive privilege.

"I'm old enough that when I hear the claim 'executive privilege', I think of Nixon and his buddies hunkering down. Rice goes on every television show, this side of Regis and whatever her name is now," says Shearer, laughing because he can't remember the name of Regis' co-host, Kelly Ripa.

"You have to expect Rice to show up on 'The Apprentice,'" Shearer continued. "This is the worst public relations advice since that guy who told UPS that 'What can brown do for you' is a good slogan."

Joking about the predication for war may get a few laughs from the people who cover those wars (the broadcast journalists and executives) and from those who make war, but it is never a good public relations move for the Americans who have their sons and daughters fighting the battles.

"I don't really have a strong feeling one way or another on those jokes," said Franken, who attended the dinner and when asked if he laughed, said he did not. "It worked in the room," Franken added.

Possibly, for those whose jobs it is to delve in the serious, a little dark humor is necessary. Shearer has another theory.

"I think anytime Bush wants to admit he is wrong about weapons of mass destruction it's fine with me," Shearer said, chuckling, but then clearing his throat to be serious. "Many times truth is spoken in humor, in jest. If that's the way he has to do it, better that, than never."