AT ONE OF THOSE rollicking insider Washington dinners in the post-Watergate era, Sen. Bob Dole stood to make his contribution. Among other observations, he offered a characterization of the nation's three living former presidents - Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon:
Hear No Evil, See No Evil and (slight pause) Evil.
In his element then, Dole brought down the house, not to speak of the Senate and the assembled national press corps. Irreverent? Snide? Cutting? Maybe all three, but even Nixon might have laughed: Dole was a close friend and admirer of the former chief executive.
And his joke might well have been aimed, not at Nixon, but at those who had raised him to the highest rung on the ladder of political villainy. By overstating his culpability, Dole was mocking it. The subtlety and nuance of his humor were not lost on the audience of insiders.
But the nation's electorate may seem far less receptive to humor that works well at formal Washington roasts and in the corridors of Capitol Hill. As he tries again to become president of the United States, Dole is finding considerable difficulty striking a tone that conveys to Joe Six Pack, as he did at the insider dinner in Washington, "I'm one of you; we have a common experience."
In a real sense, the man who is expected to become the official Republican candidate must set aside his most useful skills. The humor, the intimate fellowship, the trust and respect he has won over so many years as a leader in Washington are but dry entries on a resume now. Almost everything that is assumed about his abilities in Washington must be described and sold anew.
Marylanders may have a better sense of the GOP candidate than voters in some states because of his frequent visits here over the years. And Marylanders knowledgeable about the politics of their own state will have a keener appreciation of the difficulties he faces.
Legislators have had a difficult time here moving from the General Assembly to the governor's office. The move requires them to move from lawmaking to an administrative post - from consensus-building and deal-making among insiders to the winning of confidence among masses of anonymous and unknown voters.
In Maryland, a number of state legislators have tried to make that step and few have succeeded. Few have even come close.
One of the most successful at making this transition was a Republican, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the one-time House of Delegates minority leader, who came within 5,999 votes of defeating Democrat Parris N. Glendening in 1994.
No humorist, Sauerbrey caught the wave of unhappiness with government and politicians. She had no public profile and managed, by pluck, deft management and undetected talent, to project an image of competence and grasp.
By contrast, her former colleague, Robert R. Neall, also a Republican, found it difficult to move beyond the General Assembly into a race for the U.S. Congress - home turf, to be sure, but a wider stage demanding different campaign skills. Neall is Dole without the edge, a mirthful man, highly regarded by legislators of both parties. But he lost his congressional bid to Tom McMillen, now an ex-congressman himself.
Neall later won a term as Anne Arundel County executive, overcoming a Dole-like tendency to exhibit wit and irony that can be impenetrable to the uninitiated.
In an article several years ago for The New Republic, Hendrik Hertzberg said Dole's humor seemed more in keeping with the biting satire of Lenny Bruce than with the homely wit of Abraham Lincoln or Will Rogers.
"I don't want to say that Howard Baker is short," the senator once said, "but last week I saw him playing handball against the curb."
Over the years, Dole has made efforts to soften the impact of these lines, directing some of the abuse toward himself. In 1976, when he was Ford's vice presidential running mate, Dole became the designated attack man of the campaign. Some thought he overdid it, costing his ticket the election.
"I was going after the jugular," he said later; "my own."
This time, Dole seems determined to avoid similar excesses. (Some one will now say the candidate seems rigid and programmed. Why not let Dole be Dole? they will ask.)
Yet, even when humor works, it can be a problem.
Intellectuals love to quote the campaign wisdom of Adlai Stevenson, the former Illinois governor who ran unsuccessfully against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. But was there a liability lurking in the bons mots:
As wielded by a candidate, humor can seem a bit highbrow - again, if the punch line is not crystal clear, without a trace of venom and completely in context.
This story, not altogether complimentary to the American mind, is told about one of Stevenson's campaign appearances.
"Governor," a supporter told him after a speech, "you have the support of every thinking American."
"It's not enough, madam," he replied. "I need a majority."
"His was gentle stuff," wrote one commentator. "But before long many voters began to think he was more a funny man than presidential material and that he was trivializing his candidacy."
Asked what advice he would give others seeking the presidency, Stevenson said ruefully: "Don't run against a national hero."
The country won't mind a good joke well-told, we must hope. But if the humor seems to be packaging for bitterness or anger or pique, voters will recoil. Some political figures have concluded that dull and bland is the way to go.
In politics, perhaps, humor is the thing you safely fall back on in defeat.
Said one vanquished contender: "The people have spoken ... the bastards."
C. Fraser Smith covers politics for The Sun.
Q. Which president was the first to use a telephone to communicate campaign-related business?
A. William McKinley became the first presidential candidate to conduct a campaign strategy session over the telephone in 1896. McKinley contacted campaign managers in 38 different states from his home in Canton, Ohio, to discuss matters related to his run for the White House.
Q. What does it mean when a presidential candidate becomes the party nominee by "acclamation"?
A. Nomination by acclamation is when a vote, often in the form of an enthusiastic oral endorsement, is taken in place of a formal ballot process. Two presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964, received the Democratic Party's presidential nomination by acclamation.