Everyone knows John McCain is a war hero. And he has a national reputation as straight-talking political maverick. What probably few people realize is that he can be very funny.
Running for political office, of course, means giving speeches, lots of speeches.
. In an era in which informality — plain speaking, as Harry Truman titled his autobiography — has replaced the orotund oratorical style of old, humor has become almost a required component of the stump speech.
At every campaign stop — from Muscatine, Iowa, to Peterborough, N.H., to Holland, Mich., to Lake Wylie, S.C.— McCain can be depended on to toss out one of a dozen or so surefire jokes to loosen up the audience.
But the jests are not entirely just for laughs. Some of them also carry a subtle or even subliminal political message.
What follows are a few of McCain's greatest hits, if you will, and my interpretation of what they really mean.
McCain: "Ronald Reagan used to say, and I've quoted him a lot over the years, and it's a good line: 'Congress spends money like a drunken sailor, but I never met a sailor with the imagination of Congress.' Well, that's a pretty good line, but true story: About six months ago I got an e-mail from a guy who wrote: 'As a former drunken sailor, I resent being compared to Congress.' You can't blame him."
Analysis: All of the Republican presidential candidates like to drape themselves in the mantle of Ronald Reagan. With this joke, McCain let's you know right away that he knew the man himself — perhaps less well-known: his political career began as a Reagan protege.
He also sends the message: "I may be a veteran of Congress but I don't like the wasteful spending ways of my colleagues any more than you do. And you don't even know the half of what's really going on!"
McCain: "Congress spent $3 million for a program to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Now, I don't know if this was a criminal issue or a paternity issue —"
Analysis: This guaranteed crowd pleaser reinforces McCain's complaint that the federal government is spending taxpayer money like, well, like the aforementioned drunken sailor.
But you can assured, he is also saying that this insanity has not escaped his attention: "Elect me and this will stop."
He also occasionally mentions the veto pen that Reagan gave him and vows to wield that very same instrument to cut the pork from the federal budget. I've even seen the senator pull out the pen — or at least a pen — and wave it in the air. A nice flourish.
McCain: "What's the difference between a lawyer and a catfish? One is a scum-sucking bottom feeder — and the other is a fish."
Analysis: This one is usually told when introducing a fellow elected official who happens to be a lawyer. McCain is saying, "I am not a lawyer. And at least my lawyer friend is good-humored enough to take a ribbing."
McCain "Two guys are in the cafeteria line in prison and one guy says to the other guy, 'the food was much better when you were governor."
Analysis: My personal favorite. Pithy and very funny. He never fails to deliver it with a gifted storyteller's role playing and exquisite comic timing.
But even within this quick one-liner lurks deeper meaning. McCain is saying, "There are corrupt politicians out there in the nation and I have no more tolerance for them than you do. What's more, I've brought some of these rascals to justice myself."
He's particularly proud of his role in bringing down the lobbyist Jack Abramoff and sometimes mentions that before or after this.
McCain: "A guy came up to me and said, 'Did anyone ever tell you you look a lot like John McCain? Doesn't it just make you mad as heck?'"
Analysis: He's saying, "OK, I understand that there are people out there who think I'm a jerk. That's OK. I can laugh about it, so how big a jerk can I really be?"
McCain: "There is so little water in Arizona that the trees chase the dogs."
Analysis: This gem requires some context to make sense as it would be amusing but strange to just tell this joke out of the blue.
In Michigan, he used it as an aside to saying he was opposed to a scheme to pipe Great Lakes water to Arizona (something I'd never heard of).
In South Carolina, he brings it up while saying he sides with South Carolina in a water rights dispute with North Carolina.
McCain: "Oh, and by the way the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce asked me to tell you that it's 78 degrees there today."
Analysis: Obviously best told in a cold climate state — and preferably on a cold day in the middle of winter. Much less effective in summer when it is 120 degrees in Phoenix.
The point: "I may work in Washington, D.C., but I am from somewhere else far, far away."