The retired Massachusetts congressman shares his philosophy on the therapeutic and polemic power of humor. Ridicule, says Frank, was one of his greatest weapons. Not only does humor get you remembered, it often helps you persuade audiences through laughter and levity.
Humor has played a kind of multiple role for me. To be honest the first thing it does is keep me sane. I mean there are boring moments in politics, there are tense moments, there are disappointing moments. The thing of funny things is a way for me to cope with it, and sometimes other people too. In recent times former Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner in his book mentions a time when he was feeling very gloomy and I called him up and said something that made him laugh. And Ben Bernanke, the head of the Federal Reserve just said again oh yeah that was a tough time and I remember you said such and such. So it's probably just to make me feel better, to enjoy it. Secondly though, it has an important polemical impact, a double polemical impact. First of all people say a lot of things politically. If you say something very funny it's more likely to be remembered and it can get your political point across. My best example of this is a remark I made 30 years ago and it's now been sort of used by others without attribution, that's the greatest compliment people can pay you. President Reagan was a strong supporter of making abortion illegal. He had previously been - he had signed a bill to make abortion legal in California. He was not nearly as deeply rooted ideologically as defenders now claim, but he was, for political reasons in part he was going to be for a total ban on abortion, and the motto there was life begins at conception.
Then he becomes president and proposes a budget that cuts every program that helps poor children, the program that we called the Woman's Infants and Children's Program that provides nutrition for them, daycare, Head Start. And so you have the contrast between saying that life begins at conception and then an attack on every program that would make the lives of these children better. And I said well, I now understand the Republican view. In their head life begins at conception but it ends at birth. And frankly that became a very effective way. So it's a way to make a point. I mean I could've said well, they're being very inconsistent because they are requiring these children to be born, but once the children are born they don't do much for them. But saying it the way I said it gave it more penetrating power and more staying power.
Secondly, and this is very helpful, ridicule is about the most powerful weapon possible rhetorically. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody likes to be made fun of. And if people are making an argument or taking a set of positions that expose them to ridicule, if you can make fun of them that's also very effective. So it's a way to make your point that will A, break through the clutter and be remembered and B, make the other people nervous about it. And I do think the fact that I had a talent for effectively making fun of people made them a little nervous.
Big Think, 2014