Lubricant of Laughter
Editorial of The New York Sun | July 15, 2008
Senators Obama and McCain mightn't agree on much, but it turns out that one thing unites them — the opinion that the cover of the latest number of the New Yorker is "tasteless and offensive." Drawn by Barry Blitt, it shows Mr. and Mrs. Obama, she with an Afro and dressed in fatigues like a 1970s radical with a sub-machine gun slung on her shoulder, and he in the kind of robes and head gear normally associated with Islamist-type radicals. They're doing a little fist-bump in what we take to be the Oval Office, as an American flag burns in the fireplace. Is that Osama bin Laden's portrait over the mantle?
Well, there hasn't been such a tumult since the New Yorker's editor at the time, Tina Brown, ran cover drawing of a Hasidic man kissing a woman whose hairdo is of dreadlocks. The idea of the latest cartoon — and, for that matter, of the years-ago cartoon of the Hasid — is clearly a sly joke on the kind of stereotyping in our society. And that Mr. Obama has brought out. Mr. Blitt's drawing is one of the most wryly, thought-provoking pieces of New Yorker cover art in memory, and no doubt people will be reacting to it throughout the campaign.
Who, after all, is being made fun of here? The Obamas? Their stereo-typers? Or the reader who is trying to figure out why it is exactly that he or she is chuckling about the drawing even several minutes after regarding it? The perplexity of politicians at all this tickles us to no end, and we've often told our children of the showdown in World War II between Sergeant Bill Mauldin, the GI cartoonist of the Stars and Stripes, and General Patton, who ordered the GI cartoonist to report to Third Army headquarters for a dressing down.
When the sergeant was ushered into Patton's palatial office, the general pulled out from the center drawer of his gilt-edged desk a cartoon that he held as if it were infected with bacteria. It turned out to be a drawing of low-ranking GIs lined up to try to get into a USO show at a local opera house adorned with a marquee that said "Girls, Girls, Girls," while, at the stage door, officers were lined up to escort girls out after the show. Patton just couldn't grasp Mauldin's point — that this actually helped our cause by letting the GIs vent their frustrations.
Which, it seems, is something Mr. Obama is still learning about his own cause. He is, after all, aspiring for not only a political but a racial, generational, and cultural breakthrough. We ourselves are not immune to the idea that these elements might be a positive dimension to a campaign with which we otherwise have political differences. Surely some Americans are more comfortable with it than others. The more such there are, the more it can be said that if Mr. Obama is to slide into the White House, it will be with the help of the lubricant of laughter, including the kind that he might want to learn, as Roosevelt, Reagan, and Kennedy did, to enjoy at his own expense.
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is the editor in chief of The Atlantic
and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror