During a Democratic presidential debate on December 13, 2007, a CNN moderator mentioned then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's promise for a new approach in the country's foreign policy. Obama was asked how he could achieve this when so many of his advisors worked for President Bill Clinton.
Before Obama could answer, he was interrupted by U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, former first lady and the front runner to win the Democratic nomination.
"I want to hear that," Hillary Clinton said, provoking laughter.
Obama paused for a moment and then replied, "Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me, as well."
Laughter followed from the audience and the other Democratic candidates -- except Hillary Clinton, whose self-satisfied smile turned to a grimace.
Obama won the exchange, demonstrating that he belonged on the podium with the more experienced candidates. Several weeks later, he won the Iowa caucuses and then the Democratic nomination. He was elected president in November 2008. Hillary Clinton advised him as his secretary of state.
The ability to deliver a comeback that leaves an opponent speechless can be a potent political weapon.
Ad-libs like Obama's are, however, rare. They require qualities underappreciated in political campaigning: a good ear, a nimble brain, a sharp wit, and a comic's timing. In addition, the remark must be spontaneous, and few things in the carefully choreographed world of politics -- including ad-libs -- are left to spontaneity.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, known for his quick and trenchant wit, explained the secret behind the spontaneous comeback as follows: "All the best off-the-cuff remarks," Churchill said, "are prepared days beforehand."
Churchill's wit is prominent in my book, I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, and Ripostes (Frontline Press).
Perhaps the most memorable comebacks in U.S. politics during the last few decades were not spontaneous -- though they appeared to be.
President Ronald Reagan struggled in his first debate against Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in his re-election campaign in 1984. Reagan, who was then 73, knew he would be asked about his age in the next debate. When the question came, Reagan responded, "I want you to know I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Reagan easily won re-election.
George H.W. Bush, having served two terms as Reagan's vice president, ran for president in 1988. Bush selected little-known U.S. Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate. Quayle tried to deflect questions about his age and experience by comparing himself to President John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960
Quayle's handlers told him not to bring up the JFK comparison during his debate with Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen. Quayle ignored the advice.
"I have as much experience as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency," Quayle said during the nationally televised debate. Bentsen famously turned to Quayle and said, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no
Quayle never recovered from that moment. Since then, no politician has wanted to be on the Quayle end of a putdown.
Political analysts and commentators call these zingers. But most zingers are just scripted wisecracks.
On October 28, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel newspaper called on U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who represented Florida, to resign from the Senate because he had missed an excessive amount of meetings while campaigning for president.
During a GOP debate that evening Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, scolded Rubio. "Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term and you should be showing up to work," Bush said.
Rubio was waiting. He said that U.S. Sen. John McCain wasn't criticized for missing Senate business while he was running for president in 2008. Rubio told Bush, "is because we're running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you."
Rubio then criticized the news media, and in particular the Sun-Sentinel, for making an issue of something that he wanted prospective voters to think was trivial: his responsibility to the
state of Florida.
Rubio's response, which received one of the biggest applauses of the evening, was praised in the news media.
But Rubio is no Lloyd Bentsen. Rubio used McCain as a straw man to deflect legitimate criticism of him. The Sun-Sentinel had a point and Rubio, unable to deny it, attacked the messenger.
Wit, unlike wisecracks, has truth to it.
A sense of humor is shaped, in part, by how we observe things around us. Those with a sharp sense of humor have a keener sense of observation and a more acute sense of the absurd.
Can humor be taught? Yes.
But can it be learned? Maybe.
No national politician has a better sense of humor than Barack Obama. He also is the best counterpuncher in American politics.
During his final State of the Union address on January 20, Obama said, "I have no more campaigns to run."
Before he could continue, Republicans interrupted the president with snarky applause and adolescent laughter.
Obama waited for the applause to end before responding.
"I know because I won both of them," he said.
The GOP laughter fell silent and the Democrats howled in support.
Obama's comeback went vital. And once again, Obama had the last word -- and the last laugh.