Hear the One About the Angry Arizona Senator?

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All right, I should have explained that when I was driving in the left lane at 75 mph, I was setting up to pass two 18-wheelers that were ahead of me on an upgrade. I was simply not going fast enough for the road-rager in the BMW, who, as I recounted last week, blazed up on my right, honking at me and flipping the bird and foaming at the mouth.

That column on the subject of anger turned out to be a brilliant (but completely accidental) scientific experiment : It induced in dozens of readers a state of adrenaline-pumping e-rage that perfectly replicated the road rage I described — recreating, in virtual reality on the information highway, the same red-faced spluttering that I encountered on the real highway. Like an idiot, I got mad myself and replied to abusive e-mail just as abusively. Anger makes a fool of everyone, and is the Great Satan.

So I fled from Anger, and stumbled upon its cheerful and civilized first cousin, Humor.

On "This Week" on Sunday morning, there was Sam Donaldson hectoring John McCain, biting him on the ankles about the senator's tendency in the past to tell jokes that might be considered... insensitive. Like the one (Donaldson prompted) that said the nice thing about Alzheimer's is you can hide your own Easter eggs.

McCain, to his credit, launched into a short aria about how important humor has always been to him — an integral part of his character. If he is elected president, humor will be an active presence in the McCain White House. Hooray — I think.

Americans are responding to McCain's candor and informality. But I am not sure they are ready for White House press conferences that begin, "Good afternoon, ladies and germs... I just flew in from the summit in Geneva, and boy, are my arms tired!... But seriously — how 'bout those Chinese?" McCain, who learned humor in the Navy, with later tutelage from the Truly Tasteless Jokes series, will have to upgrade his act if he expects to play the White House.

The concept of a funny president is risky anyway, for all sorts of reasons. Humor is an unstable dimension. The funniest man (arguably) who ever occupied the White House, Abraham Lincoln, a brilliant story-teller, was also the most melancholy and, of course, did not come to a happy end. The funniest 20th-century President, Lyndon Johnson — an uproarious genius of mimickry with a savage eye for individual weakness and a Texan's gift for story-telling — ended in a tragedy of an administration. His wit did not save him. On the other hand, you could say that Herbert Hoover's lack of wit did not save him either.

Is there a correlation between humor and presidential greatness? Franklin Roosevelt was not so much funny as boundlessly good-humored. Ronald Reagan told great stories. John Kennedy had a sharp, understated wit. Jimmy Carter was hopelessly earnest. Self-importance and ambition kill humor, and most pols are bloated by their own ulterior motives. Richard Nixon surely retired the title for humorlessness. Occasionally, he made damp, maladroit efforts at humorous small talk, but the result inflicted discomfort bordering on pain.

But the McCain White House may work out. Perhaps he possesses a better instinct for the world's sense of humor than we know. I once queried TIME's worldwide bureaus asking each to supply one typical joke being heard on the streets of the capital (Moscow, Beijing, Rome, London, Tokyo, New Delhi et al.)

Depressingly, all the bureau chiefs came back with a variation on what we call the Polish joke. The one, universal constant of world humor is the laugh-at-thy-neighbor story. The English laugh at the Irish, Flemings at Walloons, Ghanaians at Nigerians, Russians at Ukrainians, Swedes at Danes, New Hampshire people at Vermonters, San Franciscans at Oakland and Berkeley, Tokyo people at Osaka people. Haw haw haw. I once visited the minuscule island of Grenada and was astonished to find that people on south end of the island mocked the ways of people at the north end. Anger and humor are closer cousins than we think.

I see the McCain White House now. The new Irish ambassador comes to call. President McCain greets him with a twinkle in his eye: "Say, Mr. Ambassador, you hear the one about the Irish setter who gets headaches from chasing parked cars?"