There may be nothing funny about presidential elections, but there is almost always something funny about the candidates. In fact, every four years, an entire industry revs up to make mockery of (and money off) the foibles of the aspirants for office, with toys, games and gadgets that poke fun at their frailties. This year, however, the political-novelty industry has hit a snag in the person of John Kerry, who appears to have a quirk it can't surmount: He seems inherently unmockable.
While gift shops and Web sites teem with humorous pro- and anti-George Bush toys and gimmicks, there is little laughable about anything on the market that is either pro- or anti-Kerry. He has, it would seem, a mockability quotient of less than zero.
This is not necessarily good or bad. It is simply frustrating to those who like a good election giggle or who try to create and sell election paraphernalia -- and perhaps even to those inclined to ponder the existential meaning of a man such as Kerry, whose persona seems impervious to gentle ridicule.
Jim Gamble, owner of RightWingStuff.com, earns his living by dreaming up clever conservative campaign slogans, which he sells on T-shirts, buttons, mugs and bumper stickers. He has had to scramble to come up with clever Kerry-bashing items, he says, "because he's kind of a stiff guy. With kind of a dull personality. The things that would poke fun at him point out how much like a tree he is. There are more amusing novelty items about his wife than there are about him -- so that tells you right there." (A plethora of Heinz ketchup labels has turned up, with Teresa Heinz Kerry's image in the center and words about "the slowest drip.") Gamble says he's come up with "Keep America From Committing Hari Kerry," and "Very Leftwards" instead of "Kerry Edwards." And he has a version of what seems to be the most popular anti-Kerry slogan in the country: "No Flip-Flops in the White House," with a picture of Kerry's face on a pair of flip-flop sandals.
In fact, the most clever pro-Kerry campaign slogans available are those that bash Bush instead of directly promoting Kerry. Among them: "Re-Defeat Bush," "Why Change Horses Mid-Apocalypse?" and one of the six most popular bumper stickers on the vast CafePress.com Web site, which offers a smorgasbord of Republican and Democratic campaign items: "Somewhere in Texas a Village Is Missing Its Idiot."
Pro-Bush campaign items feature Bush and Ronald Reagan in Stetsons ("My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys"), Bush as fearless exterminator ("Bush Kills Terrorists Dead"), and as courageous leader ("Osama Lied, Terrorists Died"). These may not provoke belly laughs, but there's nothing comparable in the Kerry camp. "If Kerry Is the Answer, It Must Have Been a Stupid Question," or a toilet photo below the slogan "Flush the Johns" (meaning Kerry and Edwards), is about the best it gets.
Of course, rabid Democrats will tell you the reason for this is that Bush is a dunce and Kerry is a sober, trustworthy, intelligent leader. Rabid Republicans will assert that Kerry is dull, wooden, wimpish and lacks the charisma needed to inspire creative campaign fun-poking.
Unbiased analysts correctly explain that Bush has been in office for four years and has therefore left a long public trail of traits and habits to make fun of. He also has a better name for punning. This is why there are so many shirts and mugs that show a little dog lifting its leg over a shrub, with the slogan, "Bushes are only good for one thing." Even so, if Howard Dean had been the Democratic nominee, some observers say, it's a good bet there would be dozens of Screaming Dean dolls and other Deaniac paraphernalia on the gag-gift market. For whatever reason, Kerry's candidacy inspires little mirth.
The granddaddy of political satire, Mort Sahl, has been around for more than a few presidential elections. When reached by phone at the University of Oregon, where he was about to perform, Sahl had no straight answers as to why Kerry isn't funny. "The Democrats killed St. George and kept the dragon," he said, referring to the demise of the Dean candidacy. "They reached out for somebody electable. And the lesson will be if he isn't electable. Nothing is impossible. This is America."
Paul Krassner, founder of the now-defunct magazine The Realist and a 1960s counterculture guru, can't explain it even after all these years of election watching. "I perceive Kerry as being like an arranged marriage. I could learn to like him; he'll certainly be a good provider ... and he's definitely better than (what we have now) in the White House."
Even the left-wing brain trust at Harvard, reportedly 100 percent behind the Democratic candidate, seems to sense a charisma gap in Kerry's plodding path to power. A recent article in The New York Observer quoted professor of law Alan Dershowitz: "We're a little spoiled in Cambridge. People my age remember Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy. Everyone remembers (Bill) Clinton, and whether you love or hate him, he was the most charismatic guy in the room. Kerry is not the most charismatic guy in the room. He may be the tallest guy in the room. He used to be the best-looking guy in the room."
Anthony Russell of Sydney, Australia, says he's a political junkie who was watching CNN one day while playing with his dog, Billy, when the idea occurred to him to add the two American candidates to the line of pet toys he manufactures. The items were an immediate hit in the United States, he says. "Bush outsells everything by a country mile. I sell five Bushes to every Kerry. Every time his polls go down, my sales go up. Next month I'm going to the U.K. and taking the Bush toy and a (Prime Minister Tony) Blair toy."
Also popular in gift stores is the Smush Bush stress reliever, a palm-sized squeeze-ball figure of Bush with the words "no brainer" embedded in the back of his head and quotes on the wrapper, such as: "The vast majority of our imports come from outside the country."
And the "carefully stacked deck" of Bush Cards. Similar to the Pentagon's deck of most-wanted former Iraqi leaders, each card pictures a member of the Bush team, along with "relevant information." The ace of hearts, Donald Rumsfeld, bears a photo of the secretary of Defense and his now immortal quotation: "As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."
Bush, the ace of clubs, appears above a quote from Bob Woodward's book "Bush at War": "I'm the commander -- see, I don't need to explain. I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."
Dave Murray is a drummer and environmentalist in Santa Cruz, Calif., who had no connection to the toy or novelty industries until this year. In the true spirit of America, he decided to do something that would "make a tiny bit of difference in the world, that would be popular and marketable and also do something toward moving us toward a political agenda that is better than what we have now." So he and a friend incorporated this year to create BopBush.com, a Web site that sells their heavy-duty vinyl George W. Bush punching bag. "You can see our BopBush crowd-floating in a mosh pit. That's the kind of thing we push for. It's symbolic. There's the prez. Toss him around. Mosh with him. Basically it's a statement of rejection."
The BopBush bag is selling well, and Murray knows it would help business if they added a BopKerry bag. But he won't do it. There are enough people making punching bags of Kerry. "Sure, we could make more money," he says. "But our idealism gets in the way."