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
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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".