WASHINGTON—It is axiomatic in these political times that The Candidate must submit to comedic humiliation—with grace, humor and the skin of an armadillo. In this upside-down universe, the court jester is the monarch and the would-be king must submit to the jester's pranks.
Most recent to the carnival was Mitt Romney appearing on the "David Letterman Show," where the candidate not only has to submit to being the brunt of jokes written by someone else, he has to tell them on himself. All of this is designed of course to appease the masses while humanizing the candidate. The routine has become so predictable that it is ennui inducing. We squirm in our seats as we watch—hope?—the candidate will slip on the peel.
Romney's act, in familiar Letterman fashion, was to recite the top 10 things he'd like to say to America. Sporting a blazer and open-collared plaid shirt, he looked like a Boy Scout in a bordello and was reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman modeling scuba gear at his parents' party in "The Graduate." It wasn't the clothes that didn't fit; it was the skin.
But Hoffman's character, you'll recall, wasn't the fool. His audience was. His existential angst reflected appropriate discomfort at being objectified by the clownish adults. So, too, might we say the same of Romney. He was dignified in the midst of absurdity.
On cue Romney began: "Isn't it time for a president who looks like a 1970s game show host?" Hohoho. Followed by: "What's up Gangstas—It's the M-I-Double-Tizzle." And so on through one-liners about Canada, the Colts, a new cologne at Macy's called "Mitt-Stified" and "Newt Gingrich, really?" And finally, "It's a hairpiece." Really?
Not. But stop it, really.
No doubt the same thought occurred to Letterman, who was hustling double-time to try to make funny that which really wasn't very. Comedy is all in the delivery, after all, and Romney wasn't giving any. This was obviously purposeful. A man or woman auditioning for the most serious job in the world doesn't need to be funny; he merely needs to be a good sport. Romney's delivery was so studiously deadpan that it was, in fact, sort of funny. It was also the only way he could play it. What Romney isn't is a comedian, a fact in which voters might find some comfort. They might find less comfort watching their possible future president being forced to play monkey to the organ grinder.
Thus, must we continue this ruse? The insistence that candidates submit to public ridicule tells us little about their nature, but does speak unflatteringly of our own. A light touch is always welcome, and humor is the antidote to darkness, a relatively benign way to channel rage (note what's missing from nations currently in flames). But perhaps this particular gantlet has exhausted itself. Let the comedians crack the jokes, and do let's retire the dunking cage. The only thing that's all wet is the shtick.
Kathleen Parker's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group.