I've Tivo'ed a number of recent programs on Winston Churchill recently, and have noted that he had a remarkable gift of showing leadership and building solidarity through the use of humor in times of crisis, i.e., WWII. He would often sort of poke fun at Hitler and the Nazi and thereby cut them down to a size where the British felt that the Germans were beatable as well as bolstering British morale that they must eventually prevail. Reagan too, was able to do this during the Cold War by poking fun at the Soviet economy (like the old jokes about the giant nail or the electrician appointment ten years hence "in the afternoon"). These were both deadly serious times, but somehow both Churchill and Reagan could use humor to unite their countries and humanize the enemy by bringing them down to size.
My impression is that the humor has gone out of politics, especially on serious subjects. If so, why is that? One explanation could be that politicians these days are essentially humorless--they are so heavily stage-managed and scripted that there is no room for humor. Or second, could this be another casualty of partisanship and the 24-hour news cycle? My impression is that attempts to use humor today, especially about serious subjects, run the risk of being pounced upon and brandished as evidence of a lack of "seriousness" or "concern" about the subject matter. Third, perhaps there is something about the type of threats we face today (terrorism, for instance), that mean that they are simply are not amenable to humor in the same way as WWII or the Cold War.
I don't know the answer, but watching Churchill, it is amazing how he could use humor to deflate very tense discussions--you simply feel a deep relief when you smile and laugh along with him. For many reasons, it seems like we could use that sort of influence today in politics.
If anyone has any thoughts on this, I would be interested in hearing them.