Politicians: Don't be the joke, own it

A site devoted to poking fun at Hillary Clinton has seen the US Secretary of State get in on the gag too. Simon Usborne salutes the leaders who realise that the best way to get ahead is to laugh along

The job of the US Secretary of State tends not to produce much humour but Hillary Clinton has revealed an unforeseen capacity for banter at the highest level of global politics. Between rebukes for North Korea for a proposed rocket test and Russia for its inaction over Syria, she found time this week to send a self-portrait to an online parodist in which she thanked him for the "many LOLZ" before signing off, "Hillz".

When you're a politician, the road to Lolz (that's enthusiastic laughter in Hillz-speak) is polluted by backfiring jokes. Ed Miliband's post-Budget pasty stunt last month was unfunny even by the Labour leader's standards, and so we all choked rather than snorted. But Clinton's self-deprecation (read on for the explanation) was greeted warmly even by her critics. By responding to a prank of which she was the subject, she has perfected the challenging political art of "owning the joke".

Clinton sent her portrait to Adam Smith, the author of a photo blog called Texts from Hillary. It began with two striking images of the former First Lady on board a military plane, concentrating coolly on her phone from behind sunglasses. Smith imagined the recipients of the missives, pairing her image with those of public figures alongside textspeak. In one, she replies to "Hey girl..." from the actor Ryan Gosling with, "It's Madam Secretary". In another, Treasury chief, Timothy Geithner, writes, "The economy is going to s**t." Clinton replies: "Sucks for you."

Then came Clinton's own submission. "Sup adam. nice selfie Stace :-)" reads her post. "ROFL @ ur Tumblr! g2g – scrunchie time. ttyl?" Smith later revealed a photo of himself alongside Clinton. There isn't space here to translate her post (we can assume she was assisted by young aides) but the point is, it worked; she appeared as cool and commanding in her response as she did behind those shades.

Humour can be a powerful political tool. Mark Borkowski, the public relations expert, says that in the age of spin and "the message" politicians too often "forget that people will forgive you if you can make them laugh at your own expense". And so for as long as there have been butts of jokes, there have been those who have attempted to own them, albeit not always successfully.

Denis Healey had never used the word "silly billy" when the impressionist Mike Yarwood put them into his mouth. Then the former Chancellor adopted the phrase and used it frequently. Similarly, Lord Tebbit revealed in 2008 that he was fond of his unflattering puppet self in the 1980s political satire, Spitting Image. "It never did me any harm," he wrote. "Sometimes politicians need a jolly good drubbing – especially if it makes the rest of us laugh in the process."

A subtle acknowledgement will often do. John Prescott, the pugilistic former Deputy Prime Minister, called his ghost-written autobiography, My Story: Pulling No Punches. Ann Widdecombe became used to comments about her appearance. In a speech to the Tory party conference in 1998, she upbraided Tessa Jowell for publishing 32 photos of herself in a pamphlet, saying: "Now I could understand it if she had my good looks."

World leaders have attempted to trade laughs for approval. Tony Blair starred alongside Lauren, Catherine Tate's un-bovvered teen, in a Comic Relief sketch. It was cringeworthy for some but the then Prime Minister fared better than George W Bush. He was criticised for making light of the Iraq war after introducing a comedy slideshow at the Whitehouse Correspondents' dinner in 2004. It showed the US president looking for something in the Oval Office. "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere," he said.

Sarah Palin, that most ridiculed of contemporary politicians, offered a masterclass in joke-owning when, in 2008, she appeared on Saturday Night Live alongside the comedian, Tina Fey, whose impressions of the then-governor of Alaska had been widely hailed.

Sometimes, however, self-parody can not so much backfire as stall a political career. Neil and Christine Hamilton's life in Westminster ended after the "cash for questions" affair, leading the Tory MP and his wife to a string of panel show and pantomime appearances. Christine embraced her reputation as a "battleaxe" by changing her name by deed poll to "British Battleaxe", but there was no way back for the couple.

Done well, Borkowski says, self-deprecation, "must be honest and credible or else you risk finding yourself at the pantomime end of a horse".

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Russell Brand at an anti-austerity march in June
peopleActor and comedian says 'there's no point doing it if you're not'
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say


Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style

Company says data is only collected under 'temporary' identities that are discarded every 15 minutes

Life and Style

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Pensions Administrator

£23000 - £26000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

KS2 Teacher

£21000 - £34000 per annum + Excellent rates of pay, CPD, Support : Randstad Ed...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: I am currently recruiting level 3 n...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album