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Humor as Rhetoric

posted: 5.4.12 by Donna Winchell

For those who like political humor, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a highlight of the year. Members of the media themselves have labeled it a prom for nerds. A friend of mine in communications refers to it asĀ  “the one time all year that I DVR something on C-SPAN.” The bar is set higher each year as the President has to deliver a string of one-liners worthy of a stand-up comedian, and the stakes are even higher in an election year. Whether Obama outperformed Jimmy Kimmel this year or not, he played to his audiences.

Through humor, Obama found common ground with members of the media who make a living criticizing him. He poked fun at his own foibles and failings and those of his administration. He wondered out loud, in a voiceover supposedly caught on a hot mic while he was in the restroom before his speech, if he could get by with more hair coloring–and if he could send Biden next year. He referred to his stepfather, who taught him that it’s a boy-eat-dog world out there. In comparing his first term and his next one, he noted that he will have to pass health care again, since that didn’t work too well the first time. He was able to joke about the lavish spending of the General Services Administration and ended his speech with the excuse that he had to get home before his Secret Service men’s new curfew.

He also got in his digs at his opponents. To a Congress that has often blocked legislation that he favored, he said, “I especially want to thank all the members who took a break from their exhausting schedule of not passing any laws to be here tonight.” And of his predecessor, he said, “Now, some have said I blame too many problems on my predecessor, but let’s not forget that’s a practice that was initiated by George W. Bush.” He swore off making jokes at Romney’s expense, but did anyway, introducing an ad featuring their two dogs that ended with a shot of Romney on the steps of Air Force One and his dog strapped in his kennel on top.

He knew whom he was safe in attacking with a bit more bite: those everyone attacks, like Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump, and those safely in his camp, like Hillary Clinton, whom he accused of drunk-texting him from Cartegena. He congratulated Arianna Huffington on the Pulitzer Prize awarded the Huffington Post and added, “There’s no one else out there linking to the kinds of hard-hitting journalism that HuffPo is linking to every single day. . . . And you don’t pay them–it’s a great business model.”

The President ended his comments by thanking the correspondents in the room, from bloggers to broadcasters, for what they do. He remembered journalists Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin, who died while on assignment. The speech as a whole, though, was addressed to an audience far beyond the ballroom of the Hilton.



Categories: Argument, Rhetorical Situation
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