The other night, just before the Democrats’ presidential debate in Milwaukee, CNN political reporter John King was expounding on Hillary Clinton. Why, he was asked, does Hillary seem to have such a hard time connecting with voters?
King recalled how he had first covered the Clintons back in ’92. In those days, he said, it was not unusual for Hillary to mingle with reporters at the back of the campaign’s chartered plane, freely sharing stories and exhibiting what King called her “Midwestern sense of humor.”
If only, he suggested, she could find that groove again.
I guess we’ll have to stay tuned to find out whether this will come to pass. From what I saw of the debate, humor — or the sense thereof — was in short supply on both sides that night.
But I was intrigued by King’s characterization of what he considered Hillary’s more approachable side. What I wondered, did he mean by a Midwestern sense of humor?
I am a Midwesterner, born and bred — just down the road, in fact, from where Hillary grew up in Park Ridge. I saw my first movie (“Prince Valiant,” I think it was) at the Pickwick Theater there. It’s possible Hillary and I got our contact lenses from the same optometrist.
Anyway: If Hillary possesses a Midwestern sense of humor, the chances are pretty good, given our mutual roots, that this is something I should know about.
The problem, of course, is that we in the Midwest are given neither to the endless self analysis of our southern cousins, nor do we favor the self promotion of our eastern kin. This lack of articulation can befuddle outsiders. When it comes to the funny, they may look at us and wonder if there’s anything going on.
We, sly devils that we are, know better.
If you ask me, the Midwestern sense of humor is primarily a mordant dish, garnished with a dose of slapstick. Garrison Keillor doesn’t call his Minnesota dream town Lake Woebegone for nothing. He gets our cloudy earnestness, tender rituals and the way even the simplest things can get suddenly out of hand.
Keillor is a contemporary of Clinton; he’s not alone. Think of Bill Murray — another Chicagoland boy, from Wilmette — and Indianapolis’ native son, David Letterman.
Murray has evolved with age, from being our hippest class clown to our great melancholic, an artist whose humor is about the necessity of sentiment and how bound it is to be ravaged by time.
Letterman is another sentimentalist, forever fond of his hometown, and its associations, like the 500, and the long departed Atlas Supermarket. But while these things are formative for him, he also, like Murray, understands how idiosyncratic and, ultimately, evanescent they are. People like thinking of him as a curmudgeon, but he’s a softy at heart.
Maybe this sentimental streak is what John King was getting at when he referred to Hillary Clinton’s Midwestern sense of humor: That soft spot we know will double as a banana peel when we least expect it. That’s what cracks us up.
And, as presidential qualifications go, I’m good with that.