When the game is politics (if politics can be called a game) then the buoyant, fruitful subject becomes all the more remarkable for its gravity.
And here’s where drawing the line between that which is play and that which is not play becomes the key task. I came to ask if the game of politics is playful last fall while preparing an online exhibit for The Strong and the Google Cultural Institute about the history of campaign toys and political board games. I noticed how, over time, citizens revealed their gut feelings while at play; a psychology that would otherwise have been lost had the cultural vibe not been preserved in the comical caricatures and barbed gags that have survived. Taking the long view, as historians must, required me both to stand back from the strange and rancorous presidential campaign—then underway—while at the same time finding fair ways to account for it.
In pursuing the question, it pays to begin with a given: a game need not be playful to qualify as play. (Take chess for example. Playing chess is, undeniably, play, but it is also, incontestably, not playful.) Though politics determine the fate of nations, in normal days, its processes often depend upon agreeable, sometimes even playful, horse-trading. And here I have in mind the occasions when the fortieth President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, a Republican, could sit with his adversary, Tip O’Neill, the forty-seventh Speaker of the House of Representatives, a Democrat, and they would preside over a bottle of Irish whiskey and exchange jokes and reminiscences. The two opponents and veteran charmers admitted that they were “friends after six p.m.,” and with grave issues of domestic and international policy on the line, they found their way to common ground. Play depends upon trust; sociability helps keep civil society civilized.
Yet sometimes, American political satire manages to please both sides. I rediscovered one such instance in the course of developing the exhibit. The New England comedian Vaughn Meader good-naturedly parodied President Kennedy’s distinctive Boston cadences on a new phenomenon. The comedy album released in October 1962, The First Family, outsold Elvis, the Beach Boys, and Peter Paul and Mary by attracting both Democrats and Republicans. It’s an early memory for me, but I recall adults playing and replaying tracks at neighborhood parties; they memorized the longer bits and repeated catchphrases and punchlines. For his part, JFK, a confident, witty man, enjoyed the spoof and joked about the album at his own expense at press conferences, and he even gave out copies as Christmas gifts.
Among the other eloquent and playful artifacts that turned up during my research was Richard Nixon’s image on a ring-toss called the Big Time Nose Around Game. It’s still funny after all these years, when you recall that the president’s cartoon schnozz reminded contemporaries of Pinocchio’s.
It’s easiest to find playfulness when the game entails playing along. We have no trouble telling a wacky practical joke from a cruel trick. (Or even a criminal conspiracy.) In the 1960, during the presidential campaign that pitted JFK against Nixon, for example, the political prankster Dick Tuck put on a conductor’s hat and tried to wave Richard Nixon’s campaign train out of a station while the candidate was delivering his stump-speech. (Even Nixon found that joke funny.)
The paranoid style that surfaces in American history, however, has now and again driven trust and civility away. In the campaign of 1972, the self-described “dirty trickster,” Donald Segretti, an operative of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (acronymmed as “CREEP”) embarked on an operation to forge campaign literature that he called “rat%ucking.” Watergate prosecutors deemed his actions crimes, and Segretti spent six months in jail. That campaign strayed far from fair play. Early on, campaigners hatched burglary plots and launched cover-ups, all crimes that ended in the president’s impeachment and resignation.
Not so far from the lessons of these momentous political events, our everyday experience reaffirms an ethical insight: good sportsmanship insures that games are conducted in fellowship and mutual respect. In our formative years, healthy play taught most of us that good sports will observe the rules for their own sake. And we also learned that playing by the rules insured the pleasurable surprises that kept players pleasantly wondering “what’s next?”
In the snarling, precedent-breaking 2016 campaign, though, observers were more likely to wonder “what next!?”
Thus, in this last election campaign, toys and games again made their pointed appearances. A wristwatch with Hillary Clinton’s image on the face suggested that it was time for change. A Trump for President 2016 pillow, on the other hand, promised that supporters would sleep better once Republicans repossessed the White House. My favorite toy, an amusing pen that could play back audio, made its point simply by throwing the candidate’s bluster—his very own words—right back at him. Recorded snippets proclaim, “I will be the greatest president that God ever created.” And, “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.” And, “Look, I’m really rich.” The caricature on the toy also captured the defiant and wounded glare that exemplified soon-to-be President Trump’s signature emotional style. Though the campaign of 2016 proved to be a bonanza for political satire on late night and cable television, candidates’ jokes fell flat. Most notoriously, Donald Trump ridiculed disabled people, called a short-statured Republican opponent a “perfect little puppet,” mimed Asian diplomats in broken English, and jokingly claimed that women who accused him of misdeeds weren’t pretty enough to assault sexually.
Future historians, from their distant perch, are likely to observe how a striking correlation emerged in the campaign of 2016; the farther political humor wandered from the playful, the more play drained from the political humor, and the more hostile, defiant, alarming, and fearful was the tenor of the political climate.