There is something of the refreshing sort in the air when a President or indeed a politician gives vent to humor. Ronald Reagan was known for his regular demonstrations of wit and, of course, there was Winston Churchill before him. And long before these two men, the sense of humor, which characterized the personality of Abraham Lincoln, gave a needed lightness of touch to a presidency otherwise embroiled in the deepest of crises America has been confronted with in its history.
In a certain way, John F. Kennedy was often inclined to humor, a feature of his presidency, which came alive at his White House press conferences. In India, many have been the politicians for whom buttressing their messages through a dash of humor was a part of the policies they believed in or espoused. Piloo Mody comes to mind here. On the floor of the Lok Sabha, Syed Badrudduja and Atal Behari Vajpayee often engaged in goodhumored banter, adding verve to the proceedings. Here in Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman possessed a powerful sense of humor that endeared him to all, including those who did not share his political philosophy. Shamsul Huda Chowdhury was a regular wit in the Jatiya Sangsad, especially when he served as its Speaker.
It now appears that President Abdul Hamid is another figure on our political canvas whose penchant for humor is a pronounced part of his personality. He has always been given to wit and repartee, an aspect of his character, which of late has been on display at some of the convocations of universities he has had cause to address as chancellor. He has been speaking of the queer pitfalls of being President, notable among which has been the role of eggs in relation to his presidential persona.
The President cannot partake of an egg or for that matter any other food without his government-appointed doctor tasting it first. It is all a question of security, of course. But when as much as a third of a poached egg is gone before the president can place it in his mouth, there is something to be said about the gilded cage in which the politically powerful often live.
President Hamid, it has to be said without ambiguity of any kind, is one man who relates rather well to people because of his innate humility and simplicity. One who has not met him does not quite know if, besides being a man of wit, he is also a raconteur. All men of wit incidentally happen to be great storytellers as well. Perhaps Abdul Hamid has his own yarns that he regales his visitors with. He is constantly cracking jokes, leaving his audience in splits. It was something he did again at the fiftieth convocation of Dhaka University the other day.
Presidential or political humor, when all is said and done, is a personality trait that should be used sparingly. There is a clear reason why that must be so, and it is that men and women in powerful positions of the state must not begin to be looked upon as people whose job is only to make people laugh. Wit ought not to be an endless litany of presidential story telling. One or two instances of humor injected into an otherwise formal speech are fine, for they provide relief to the audience. By that standard, the rather longish demonstration of humor the President went into at the Dhaka University convocation threatened to achieve quite the opposite of what it intended to.
A convocation at a university is a serious affair, seeing that it is an opportunity for the leading speaker to be inspirational in his peroration before the young men and women about to step out of their alma mater and into the realities of quotidian life. The chancellor, in this case the nation’s president, is expected to speak in the tones of a wise man, indeed in the language of a scholar. It is not that the scholarly cannot be complemented by the humorous.
It is just that the humorist knows where to draw the line between being witty and being inspirational. When President Hamid plunged into a pretty long statement of how he could not qualify for admission at Dhaka University, of how his poor academic qualifications prevented his entry into Dhaka University and of how, ironically, he now found himself in the enviable position of addressing an audience at a university that would have no place for him in his youth, he appeared to be getting carried away.
Getting carried away is, of course, a trait shared by millions around the world. But Presidents and Prime Ministers ought not to get carried away, for their people or their societies expect them to bring into their approach to their offices that necessary element called gravitas. At Dhaka University, the presidential inclination to humor could have been toned down, the better to suit the occasion. University convocations should be a guideline to the future for the young rather than being a long flippant narration of one’s own past.
Humor and gravitas, then, must come in good and fair proportions. That depends on where one happens to be at a given time.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor of Asian Age