Sen. Amy Klobuchar is scheduled to appear at the Gridiron Dinner Saturday night. This is an annual tradition where top politicians come and deliver light-hearted speeches to top journalists, sort of like the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. The question this year is whether 2020 candidate Klobuchar can turn the corner on all the bad press about the way she runs her office by using some self-deprecating humor. Politico Magazine has a piece considering the possible approaches Klobuchar might take:
Klobuchar’s upcoming performance turned into something of a parlor game this week with old hands who have helped other politicians prepare for Washington media dinners…
The consensus, among these off-the-record interviews: There is enough raw material to make it relatively easy for Klobuchar to crush it — if she has the self-confidence and brio to crush herself. “A target-rich environment” is how one veteran Democratic operative described the comedic landscape.
She could tell a lame joke that purposely falls flat, then launch into a flamboyant tirade against a nearby aide: “You are the worst joke writer ever!” Or she could take the opposite tack, perhaps with a behind-the-scenes video at her office showing her ostentatiously lavishing praise on employees, watering their plants, picking up their dry cleaning and so on.
She has to try something to turn this awkward story into something slightly less awkward. But it’s an open question whether this still works. In the 1990s a lot of Democrats decided that a person’s personal failings (with interns and others) shouldn’t really be taken into account. What really mattered was job performance (and having the correct progressive opinions). Some progressives have come to regret that stance. As I’ve argued recently, #MeToo is in many ways a rejection of those ideas. It doesn’t matter that Harvey Weinstein had progressive, feminist views if he was sexually assaulting women at every opportunity. So Klobuchar’s Gridiron appearance is a kind of test for how this will play out:
It is a modern sensibility that says it is no longer OK to have an impressive public persona — in Klobuchar’s case, as a proven winner with voters at home, and an intelligent and conscientious record in Washington — that masks an abusive or hypocritical private character. To take an example outside the political arena, many people can no longer appreciate Kevin Spacey’s work on-screen knowing what they do of his behavior off-screen. At the same time, many people rallying to Klobuchar’s defense harness their argument to identity politics that have taken on a sharp new edge in the Trump era: A woman is being shamed for behavior that is tolerated, even celebrated, when practiced by men.
This modern question — how to judge public figures for personal failings? — will play out at an evening that is a creaky vestige of earlier generations.
The structure of the kind of humor Klobuchar will be attempting is that the joke asks the audience to side with the comedian against the bad behavior of the butt of the joke. In this case, the comedian and the butt of the joke will be the same person: Amy Klobuchar. Can she mock her own past behavior in a way that shows she now agrees it was bad behavior? I think she definitely can with help from some good writers.
The real question is whether the jokes will represent any kind of reality. Just because she can deliver a few lines at her own expense doesn’t mean she’s actually learned to stop blowing up at her staff. Klobuchar could deliver a good monologue and make the journalists laugh but that doesn’t mean there won’t be another story about her berating her campaign staff six months from now. It’s easy to claim she’s not that person anymore but I suspect habits built up over a lifetime won’t be so easy to change, especially during the intense pressure of a presidential campaign.