BY JONATHAN MILLER
I’m no Jerry Seinfeld. But there are few things I enjoy more than making people laugh. Intentionally, of course.
In fact, as a recovering politician, I’ve found that the effective employment of a sense of humor — particularly of the self-deprecating variety — can be an invaluable resource in the worlds of commerce, culture, and simple interpersonal dynamics.
That’s why the two occasions in which I was warned NOT to rely on my joke-telling instincts are etched permanently on my psyche.
Most recently, was my bucket-list-checking appearance last year on The Daily Show, during which I played straight man to the hilarious Al Madrigal, in his tongue-fully-lodged-in-cheek “interview” about No Labels, a grassroots movement I co-founded that promotes bi-partisan problem-solving. The no-humor-allowed instructions were easy to follow, given that any lapse on my part would have resulted in being subject to overwhelming ridicule by a talent much more adept in the art of political satire.
More difficult to swallow was the advice given five years earlier by my media training team as I prepared to launch a gubernatorial campaign in Kentucky. They strongly warned me to avoid telling jokes in any public setting, lest they be misunderstood by a potentially-offended audience, or worse, taken out of context and used by the media or my political opponents to savage me and my political prospects. It was no coincidence, they explained, that previously funny pols like Bob Dole and John McCain — and especially Al Franken — had muzzled down their own senses of humor in preparation for politically significant races.
I was reminded of these anti-humor admonitions when I read the breathless coverage of Ashley Judd’s recent speech about women’s health issues at George Washington University. As Judd has maintained a low profile while she considers challenging Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for his U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky in 2014, the media has applied Talmudic scrutiny onto every rumored utterance by the actress. When she finally spoke publicly, many national and local news sources latched onto one phrase she used to explain why she hadn’t participated in a particular anti-poverty trip. Reported CNN:
Some of her not-so-politician-sounding moments didn’t go unnoticed by her would-be competition. Brad Dayspring, a strategist at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, jumped on a comment Judd made about how she once told the musician, Bono, that she and her then-husband would travel during the winters.
“We winter in Scotland,” she said. “We’re smart like that.”
Dayspring wasted no time: “A true woman of the people,” he posted on Twitter, referring to her comment.
“I wonder if Ashley Judd will ‘winter in Scotland’ this year,” he also wrote. “Tough to run a #KYSEN campaign from the UK.”
Political Wire posted the offending clip, claiming that Republicans argue it is damaging.
And Politico seized on the anecdote — mentioning the quote in the lede of its article about the event — in a piece originally entitled, “Judd Talk Bizarre, Poignant.” (Editors ultimately changed the headline to read “Ashley Judd Gives Poignant Talk at DC Forum,” although the word “bizarre” remains in the URL link.)
Was the reference to “winters in Scotland” a “bizarre” rookie slip-up by a Hollywood icon already being pilloried by the GOP as too elite for Kentucky?
Of course not. It was a joke.
Had Judd referred to winters in St. Bart or the Cayman Islands, perhaps there might have been a political cause of action.
But as anyone who’s looked at a map — or watched the British Open — understands, Scotland’s weather stinks, much worse than even its infamous cuisine of haggis, neeps and tatties. However, since Judd’s soon-to-be-ex husband, IndyCar series driver Dario Franchitti, hails from the Land of Scots — and spends his spring through fall months on oval tracks around the globe — naturally, the couple would take some winter vacation time with his family in the British Isles. “Wintering” in Scotland is Judd’s absurdist reality, much like “summering” in Phoenix, or de-toxing in Las Vegas.
Admittedly, “winters in Scotland” isn’t LOL funny. But it was a clever, self-deprecating remark from a trained humorist, mocking both the celebrity culture of consumption, as well as the over-the-top scrutiny of an obsessed media.
I’m confident that her political opponents and the media scolds will continue to take jokes like this out of context to further illustrate their narrative that Judd is out-of-touch with the needs of real Kentuckians. And perhaps her political team will give her the same advice that I received to tone down the humor.
But I hope that’s not the case. And knowing Judd a little, I’m pretty sure that this actress could never be scripted like the talking-point-reciting automatons who dominate American politics.
Indeed, I don’t think she needs to be concerned. As I argued recently in The Daily Beast, Judd’s celebrity — and the media circus that will follow her — offer the actress a unique opportunity to transcend the current political construct of 30-second paid commercials and meagerly parceled out, 15-second, free media soundbites. As the cameras chase her — unlike the reverse with typical politicians — Judd will have the opportunity to engage in detailed, nuanced discussions of complex issues and will enjoy more than sufficient opportunity to share her comprehensive vision with voters. Critically as well, the abundance of free media will also provide Judd a wealth of opportunities to explain her past statements or any of her jokes that had been taken out of context.
At a time when Americans are fed up with politics and politicians — when Congress’ approval is at all-time lows, even below that of Brussels sprouts, and only a tad higher than root canals — we all could use a little more intentional humor mixed in with our policy debates. And I for one hope that Judd is never discouraged to keep her humor held high when all the world around her is losing theirs.
Recovering Politician Jonathan Miller is a Lexington attorney and Harvard grad who’s held numerous senior positions in state and federal government, including two terms as Kentucky’s elected State Treasurer, serving in Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear’s Cabinet as Secretary of Finance and Administration, as Deputy Chief of Staff of the U.S. Department of Energy, and as Legislative Director for Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN). He’s authored two books on faith and public policy; co-founded No Labels, a national grassroots reform movement; played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; and reached the final table of the World Series of Poker.
This article appears on page 6 of the March 14 print edition of Ace.
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What the Media is Saying About Ashley Judd
“Please, avoid those tone-deaf Hollywood-isms such as ‘We winter in Scotland.’ That kind of language is far more alienating to the average Kentucky resident than your pro-choice stance.” —Matt Wyatt, HuffPo
“She continues to provide fodder for the GOP even as she heads toward a candidacy (all right, so the husband she is divorcing, and calls ‘family forever,’ is Scottish race-car driver Dario Franchitti — but did she have to tell students this month that we ‘winter in Scotland’?).” —Jill Lawrence, National Journal
“Judd told one close ally that she plans to announce her run for the Democratic nomination for the 2014 race ‘around Derby’ — meaning in early May when the Kentucky Derby brings national attention to Louisville and the Bluegrass State. Reached for comment by email Saturday, Judd offered a not-quite-ironclad denial to The Huffington Post. ‘I am not sure who is saying this stuff, but it is not I! I’d prefer as a fan of your journalism that you stay accurate and credible. We told everyone who called us yesterday these stories are fabrications.’” —Howard Fineman, Political Read, HuffPo March 12, 2013
“Because of her star power and because of the political power of the man she wants to unseat, Judd’s flirtation with the race has drawn considerable national attention, and the coverage will only intensify if she gets in. That has led Dave Weigel, among others, to argue that the political world’s focus on Judd is misplaced – that her party label, liberal views and Hollywood background are all a poor match for an electorate that has become increasingly Republican over the last few decades.”
SALON March 11, 2013 “A Reality Check for Ashley Judd”
“The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is not throwing its weight behind Ashley Judd yet. On a conference call with reporters Monday, the committee’s executive director, Guy Cecil, would not directly deny a report in the Louisville Eccentric Observer that his committee is re-evaluating Judd and giving a second look at Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes after a poll conducted for the DSCC found her outperforming Judd against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. ‘We don’t spend a lot of time talking to weekly newspapers about our recruitment strategy,’ he joked. POLITICO March 11, 2013
“It would seem like a Republican fantasy: a famous actress, who has been described by her own grandmother as a Hollywood liberal, is floated as a Senate candidate in one of the country’s most conservative states, where she does not even live…. How serious could such a candidacy be? Plenty, it turns out.” New York Times February 15, 2013
Related Ace Archives
“She writes glowingly of her time at the University of Kentucky where she was ‘ready to become a full-fledged social activist.’ She worked shifts at WRFL, organized demonstrations against UK’s financial association with apartheid, and she helped lead a student walkout to protest Happy Chandler’s infamous use of the n-word.” Click to read full article.