WASHINGTON - The winning candidate gets the last laugh, but the long, long road to the White House has given Americans some titters along the way.
Vice President Gore, who for decades has worn a tie and suit, ditched them last year when Naomi Wolf told him clothes make the “Alpha” man. He donned “earth tones'' and khakis and knit shirts. He paid her $15,000 a month for that advice.
Comedian Mark Russell said that Ms. Wolf was to Mr. Gore what Jim Henson was to Kermit the Frog. When Texas Gov. George W. Bush addressed the issue, he said, “Can you imagine a grown man paying $15,000 for somebody to tell you what to wear? Heck, $15,000 these days gets you a sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom.''
The candidates became understandably exhausted as they have zipped from state to state in recent days. Last week as Texas Gov. George W. Bush was screaming himself hoarse in Minnesota, he wound up for the closer. “This has been my message in the last week of the campaign just as it was in the first week of the campaign.'' But the TelePrompTer was slow. When the words finally scrolled up, the audience could see the relief as Mr. Bush blurted out: “To leave no child behind.''
Much of the campaign humor this year has been the you-had-to-be-there variety. Mr. Gore no longer pretends to dance the Macarena by standing stock still, but he still likes to poke fun at his image as a stick in the mud. Giving a speech at a campaign rally on Friday the 13th, the Vice President told the crowd, “Well, it's Friday the 13th and over at the White House we're not superstitious. But just in case, I'll knock on wood.'' At that point he knocked on his head.
One measure of how voters might choose has been sales of Halloween masks. Bush masks were more popular than Gore masks in many parts of the country this year. At one point, journalists traveling with Mr. Bush all put on Bush masks, causing comedian Conan O'Brien to joke, “A confused George W. said, `Wait a minute, which one is me?''' Mr. Bush did his part to be fair. When Jay Leno put on a Bush mask, Mr. Bush put on a Gore mask. “This is more scary,'' he joked.
Sales of bumper stickers have been unusually sluggish this year. But a new one just out seems to be gaining popularity in some states. It says: “Blame me - I voted for Nader.''
Ralph Nader's team is credited with coming up with the best ad of the campaign season. Spoofing the Monster.com ad where children in the black-and-white film solemnly say when they grow up they want to be underpaid, underappreciated, and discriminated against, some of the same children in the Nader ad say they want tax breaks for the very rich, want politicians to ignore them, and want to be disillusioned voters when they grow up.
Courting the youth vote has become vital to politicians. So the violent, sexist world of professional wrestling suddenly this year became important to politicians. And the winnah? George W. Bush for getting The Rock to star at his convention.
The candidates themselves generally try to be careful not to make too many jokes. They want to be taken seriously. And they worry about being politically incorrect - a far cry from 1996 when Bob Dole's one-liners made campaign humor a separate beat for some reporters.
Mr. Dole is generally conceded to have been one of the funniest candidates in recent history. Complaining about Democrats and taxes, and President Clinton's 1993 tax hike, Mr. Dole on the trail used to say: “I said on the Senate floor one day, `Now let me tax your memories,' and Ted Kennedy jumped up and said, `Why haven't we thought of that before!'''
Whenever Mr. Clinton talked about his job creation, Mr. Dole would say that Mr. Clinton “likes to brag he's created 11 million jobs. I said, `yeah, I met a guy the other day, he's got three of them.'''
His most famous line came after he fell off the stage in California when a railing gave way as he leaned down to shake hands. He said, “I took a little fall in Chico, and on my way down my cell phone rang, and it was the trial lawyers calling to say, `I think we've got a case here.'”
Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore rarely have been funny in public, at least not intentionally. Mr. Bush has endured an uncomfortable amount of ridicule for his trouble with syntax and a tendency to get words wrong. The current one is the issues that “resignate'' with voters, instead of “resonate.'' Instead of saying “perseverance'' is a good quality in a president, he said “preservation'' is what presidents do.
Mr. Gore has endured an equally uncomfortable amount of ridicule for embellishing, suggesting he spent his entire youth in tobacco fields, seeming to say he invented the Internet, suggesting author Erich Segal called Mr. Gore the model for Love Story, saying a Florida school was so crowded a young girl had to stand every day.
But at the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York, a fund-raiser named after the former New York governor and 1928 presidential candidate, both presidential candidates got to let their hair down. Mr. Gore scored kudos for making fun of his boast that he had helped promote development of the Internet, incorrectly shortened to the myth that Mr. Gore claimed he invented the Internet. Mr. Gore joked that he “actually did invent'' the Al Smith dinner.
As Mr. Bush gazed out at the crowd, some of New York's richest and most powerful people, he joked about the Republicans' identification with the wealthy. He said, “This is an impressive crowd - the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base.''
Making fun of his “policy wonk'' image, Mr. Gore said that like many folks, he just likes to “kick back and relax and watch television for relaxation. One of my favorite shows is, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Well, it should really be called, Who Wants to Be After Taxes a $651,437.70 Person?'' Then Mr. Gore added that if Mr. Bush gets elected, the show would be “Who Wants to Be After Taxes a $701,587.80 Person?''
Both candidates have gotten into trouble for praising something they loved as children which was not available when they were children. For example, Mr. Bush said as a child he loved The Very Hungry Caterpiller, but it was not published until he was an adult. Jay Leno kidded Mr. Gore, who once said his favorite song as a child was “Look for the Union Label,'' saying the Vice President's favorite singer as a child was Eminem.
Mr. Leno and his fellow talk-show hosts have spent far more time talking about the candidates than the evening news shows have. He recently joked about Mr. Bush's decision at age 40 to give up drinking before Mr. Bush admitted to an arrest 24 years ago for driving under the influence of alcohol, which he did not disclose until after a TV station reported it. Mr. Leno quipped that Mr. Bush said he used to drink to forget. Then he realized, `Hey, I can forget without a drink.'”
David Letterman, another late-night talk-show host who relies greatly on making fun of the presidential candidates, said this year, “The road to the White House runs through me, even if I have 100 bypasses.''
But even on the talk-show circuit, it's not a joke a minute. When Mr. Nader pulled out a rubber chicken on The Tonight Show, nobody laughed. Mr. Leno said in sympathy, “This comedy is not easy, is it, Ralph?''