Regardless of your politics, you’ll agree that the Great Communicator of the 1980s was President Ronald Reagan. He won election and reelection using his sense of humor. In his campaign debate against President Jimmy Carter, he lightly dismissed one of the President’s explanations with the comment, “There you go again….” His simple message often connected with buoyant optimism — in contrast to the humorless Chief Executive who put on a sweater, lowered the thermostat and told Americans to get used to it.
During his reelection campaign, the issue of Reagan’s age was raised as a disadvantage against his relatively youthful opponent, Senator Walter Mondale. Could the old man be trusted with his finger on the nuclear button? (When my grandfather was that age, we wouldn’t even let him touch the remote!) Comedians were making jokes about it — and you know when comedians are joking about it, it’s serious! Reagan replied, “I am not going to make age an issue in this campaign. I refuse to exploit for political gain my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
At his first meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan broke the tension with humor. At that time, Moscow police were being criticized for letting Kremlin diplomats get away with everything. So Reagan opened their meeting by telling how Gorbachev had been late for a recent meeting — so late that he told his chauffeur, “You get in the back and I’ll drive!” Speeding through Red Square in his limousine, Gorbachev passed two motorcycle policemen, Boris and Ivan. Boris turned on his siren and lights and began chasing the car. About two minutes later, he came back. Ivan asked, “Boris, you did not give them a ticket? Who was in the back of that limousine so powerful and important that you would not enforce the law?” Boris replied, “Comrade, I do not know who was in the back, but his driver was Chairman Gorbachev!”
It’s said that Gorbachev erupted in laughter and a very successful meeting followed. If you can get someone to laugh in a tense situation, you have won — you’ve defused the issue and disarmed your opponent.
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