And yet, sometimes, particular examples do gall.
For instance, Bill O'Reilly, the TV host and author of best-selling clip job histories, noted on Fox Tuesday that Barack Obama had gone on a humor program with Zach Galifianakis called "Between Two Ferns" on the comedy website Funny or Die. The president was encouraging young people signing up for health insurance. O'Reilly said he found the appearance "a little bit desperate," perhaps "demeaning" and something that Abraham Lincoln would never do.
"But the president of the United States?" O'Reilly scoffed. "All I can tell is you Abe Lincoln would not have done it. There comes a point when serious times call for serious action.”
Despite all the ill-informed bile that has flowed for years like a mighty river from Bill O'Reilly's mouth, we in the fact-based world have to stand back and marvel, if not gape, in shock, almost awe. Really? Lincoln? The 16th president? The man O'Reilly wrote a book about? The president who, if he was known for one thing, was famous as a clown and a story-teller who "in serious times" would tell jokes under almost any circumstance.
"In the midst of ... death-giving news," Count Adam Gurowski, a Polish born writer who lived in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, "Mr. Lincoln has always a story to tell. This is known ... by all who approach him. Months ago I was in Mr. Lincoln's presence when he received a telegram announcing the crossing of the Mississippi by Gen. Pope at New Madrid. Scarcely had Mr. Lincoln finished the reading of the dispatch when he cracked ... two not very washed stories."
Not just jokes. Dirty jokes. Two basic default misperceptions about the past among those with scant knowledge of it are 1) that people were all chaste prudes back then. And 2) that they had no sense of humor, as if the real Lincoln were the stiff portrait on the $5 bill, or the serene face on Mount Rushmore. O'Reilly no doubt invoked Lincoln's name because, to him, Lincoln represents all that is grave, serious and Biblical about America.
Lincoln loved puns, introducing himself and his stout wife as "the long and the short of it." He might not have really told job seekers that they had as much chance of getting a federal appointment "as you have of sleeping with my wife," but several contemporaries claimed he did. No event was too solemn, such as on April 30, 1863, which Lincoln had officially proclaimed as "a national day of prayer, fasting and humiliation" for the proud but shattered country to humble itself before the offended Almighty God and beg for forgiveness, seeking relief from the divine punishment of the Civil War.
"Gentlemen, this is a fast day," he observed to his staff, "and I am pleased to observe that you are working as fast as you can."
Just as Obama's humor draws the hoots of his relentless ideological enemies, so Lincoln's jests provoked the scorn of their equivalents at the time. "A low-bred obscene clown," sniffed the Atlanta Intelligencer which, like O'Reilly, spoke to an audience in self-destructive open rebellion.
|Cartoon criticizing Lincoln, who replies to Columbia demanding her sons|
slain in the Civil War with "That reminds me of a story." The New York
World had published a false report that he joked surveying the carnage
on the battlefield at Antietam.
As with Obama, Lincoln's jests were twofold—he enjoyed telling them, and they served a purpose. This was true throughout Lincoln's life, even as a young man, when he worked as an attorney.
Once, at the summation of a trial he was arguing, Lincoln referred to the punch line of a popular joke.
"They have their facts right," he said, "but are drawing the wrong conclusion."1
The full joke went like this: a farm boy runs to his father and says, "Pa, pa, the hired hand and sis are in the hay loft! She's a liftin' up her dress up and he's a pullin' down his pants and affixin' to pee all over the hay."
The farmer put his hand on the agitated boy's shoulder and replied, "Son, you've got the facts right but you're drawing the wrong conclusion."
O'Reilly is worse than the naive farmboy. He both has his facts wrong and is drawing the wrong conclusion. But then, he's built a career out of doing that, spinning folly from error for an audience of belligerent yokels who lap it up. Too late for him to change now.
After I wrote the above, I was still looking through materials I had gathered about Abraham Lincoln and humor, and came upon this, written by Lincoln in a letter to Col. John D. Van Buren, dated June 26, 1863:
I believe I have the popular reputation of being a story teller, but I do not deserve the name in its general sense, for it is not the story itself but its purpose, or effect, that interests me. I often avoid a long and useless discussion by others or a laborious explanation on my own part by a short story that illustrates my point of view. So, too, the sharpness of a refusal or the edge of a rebuke may be blunted by an appropriate story, so as to save the wounded feeling and yet serve the purpose. No, I am not simply a story teller, but story telling as an emollient saves me much friction and distress.
In other words, Lincoln's humor has a point, which of course Obama's does too—in this case, saving American lives by promoting health insurance. When you realize what he was doing—nudging young people toward health care—the appearance becomes more than not "demeaning," but laudable.
And you realize, again, how loathsome the opposition of the O'Reillys of the world truly is. Not just ignorant, but disingenuous. They are against, not only his method in this instance, but in all instances, and not just the purpose behind it, but against whatever his purpose happens to be. Against literally anything he does. Someday, when the history of attacking Barack Obama is written—and what an interesting book that will be—future historians will marvel how his kneejerk opponents, who decried everything he said or did, somehow managed to maintain the fiction that each new vibration of their pre-determined condemnation was a fresh reaction based on a fair analysis of the latest evidence, and not just the chiming out of their single, set, tuning fork quiver of continual opposition.
1. From "Abe Lincoln's Legacy of Laughter," Edited by Paul M. Zall (University of Tennessee Press: 2007)