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  • The secret of his success

    Posted On March 27, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    Why did we warm to President Clinton? The question is intriguing because the answer, though simple, is not necessarily straight forward. Was it only because he said nice things about us? Surely we are not so susceptible to flattery. Was it because he put the boot into Pakistan? Whilst that is understandably welcome I can’t believe we are so small as to be bowled over by such vicarious thrills. No, I suspect the real reason lies elsewhere.

    Bill Clinton has style. He has presence, charisma, charm, a sense of occasion and definite good looks. But he also has something else. He has humour. Not of the ha-ha variety. But wit.

    Clinton kept us smiling, often laughing. We relaxed in his company because he made us. Unlike our politicians who try to be weighty and always want to say things full of meaning and significance, Bill Clinton is light, his metaphors are evocative and easy, his words are colloquial and simple. In comparison our politicians are stolid.

    It’s sad that wit has so little to do with our public discourse. Occasionally in the Lok Sabha a Pramod Mahajan or a Sushma Swaraj can be devastating, at long-forgotten public rallies Atal Vajpayee has excelled himself and way back in the past men like Nehru or Pilloo Mody have even made history. But those were special occasions – a parliamentary vote of confidence, a speech to the nation or an obituary for Mahatma Gandhi. Wit as a part of everyday life is not our way of responding to situations.

    The golden age of wit was the last half of the last century. In the 1880s, when the prime ministership of Britain seemed to oscillate between Gladstone and Disraeli, their relationship was the source of some of the best repartee. On one occasion Gladstone, who enjoyed mocking Disraeli, claimed the latter would either die on the scaffold or of a terrible disease.

    “That depends Sir” the unflappable Disraeli replied “on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”

    Although we associate wit most often with the British, the French have developed their own strain which is almost as appealing. Clemenceau, on a rare visit to New York, described America as “a land of unique good fortune – it has progressed from barbarism to decadence without experiencing the intervening stage of civilisation.”

    My favourite are the stories of Churchill and Lady Astor. They detested each other. So much so that on one occasion when she was pouring out the coffee Lady Astor is supposed to have said :

    “Winston, if you were my husband I would poison your coffee.”

    Pat came the reply :

    “If you were my wife I would drink it!”

    The one I particularly like is a little cruel. Apparently an inebriated Churchill once stumbled as he was leaving the Commons only to find Lady Astor standing in front of him.

    “Winston” she exclaimed. “You’re drunk!”

    “And you’re ugly” he replied and then added “but tomorrow I’ll be sober.”

    Such is the power of British humour that occasionally all of us are capable of it. Perhaps there’s something about being in their country that is infectious. Thus it was in 1976 when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge and speaking at the Union. The motion was “This House would have sex before marriage”. It was a joke debate and Benazir Bhutto, on a visit from the other place, was proposing the subject.

    “Madam” I interrupted as the Union hushed to complete silence. “I see you’re proposing the motion that this House should have sex before marriage. Would you care to practise what you preach?”

    “Certainly” she replied not a whit abashed and then crinkling her nose with evident distaste added “but not with you!”

    Clinton’s style is much more self-deprecatory. The joke is always at his own expense. That’s why it’s easy to laugh with him. Whether he was joking in Delhi about how the press would ensure he sang the same tune in Islamabad or

    threatening to block traffic in Hyderabad when he returns for his driving licence, on each occasion he willingly put himself in the ‘dunce’ position.

    “Must be pretty tough for a man who is President of the United States” was the first comment I heard when I pointed out Clinton’s style of becoming humility.

    “No” I replied. “It’s easier because he’s President. Men of achievement can easily laugh at themselves. It’s more difficult for lesser mortals to joke at their own cost.”


    “Because the joke is often too close to the truth for comfort.”

    “Is that why our politicians don’t have a sense of humour? Is it because they can’t risk it?”

    I don’t know the answer but I suspect there’s something to the thought behind the question. In fact it probably applies to most people who use wit, particularly when they joke at their own expense. They tend to be people who are at ease with themselves – self-confident, men or women of achievement, with a largeness to accommodate and even laugh off their own failings.

    I leave you to decide whether our politicians fit into this category.

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