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JEFF JACOBY

Heard the one about Kerry's sense of humor?

JUST FOR laughs, you want to hear a little joke about shooting the president?

Presidential assassination -- now there's a funny topic. Just ask John Kerry. When the head of the United Mine Workers presented him with a semiautomatic shotgun during a Labor Day campaign stop in West Virginia, Kerry chortled, "I thank you for the gift, but I can't take it to the debate with me." High-larious!

How can you not love a candidate with such a robust sense of humor? The Massachusetts senator brings so much wit to the presidential race. Remember his wisecrack last spring about a bicycle accident that left President Bush with bruises on his face, hands, and knees? "Did the training wheels fall off?" he asked. Or his line in January about the man who is now his running mate? "When I came back from Vietnam in 1969," he said in Iowa, "I don't know if John Edwards was out of diapers then." Oh, that Kerry -- what a stitch!

For some reason people are forever commenting on how dour and stiff Kerry is. But it's a bum rap. As anyone who has followed his career knows, the guy's a regular Jackie Mason.

Take his great quip about Saddam Hussein's military back in 1997, when he was advocating an expansion of the NATO no-fly zone. "The Iraqi Army is in such bad shape now," Kerry said, "even the Italians could kick their butts." Everyone split their sides, they were laughing so hard. Well, almost everyone. For some reason the Massachusetts state auditor, Joseph DeNucci, accused Kerry of a "degrading, disgusting" ethnic slur. And a spokesman for the National Italian American Foundation said, "It was a totally inappropriate comment. What could he have been thinking?" Talk about killjoys. There's no pleasing some people.

A year earlier, when Kerry was running for reelection, he uncorked a priceless rib-tickler about his opponent, Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld. "This guy," he said on Don Imus's radio show, "takes more vacations than the people on welfare." Is that a hoot? And yet, believe it or not, some people didn't think it was funny. "I'm very insulted, very insulted," one welfare recipient told The Boston Globe. She obviously has no appreciation for sophisticated comedy.

Speaking of sophisticated comedy, have you heard the one about the camel and the ass? This must be Kerry's favorite joke, to judge from the frequency with which he told it during last year's primary campaign. Here it is, taken verbatim from his remarks to the Florida Democratic party convention in December:

"A little more than 5,000 years ago, Moses said, `Hitch up your camel, lift up your shovel, mount your ass. I will lead you to the promised land.' Five thousand years later, Franklin Roosevelt said, `Light up a Camel, lay down your shovel, sit on your ass. This is the promised land.' Today, George Bush will outsource your camel, tax your shovel, kick your ass, and tell you there is no promised land."

No doubt there are some grouches who would regard this as excruciatingly unfunny, not to mention an insult to FDR. ("Lay down your shovel, sit on your ass" was not exactly the motto of the Works Progress Administration.) But as any connoisseur of good humor will attest, you can't hear jokes like this even in the best comedy clubs.

Not only is Kerry a very funny fellow, he is a critic of other people's material. He certainly let Bush have it for some dubious gags at the Radio and Television Correspondent's Dinner about the lack of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. As Bush showed photographs of himself looking under furniture and behind the drapes in the Oval Office, he made comments like "Those weapons of mass destruction have to be somewhere" and "Nope, no weapons over there."

Apparently Bush never learned that some topics are not appropriate fodder for jokes, particularly from someone of national political stature. Kerry firmly set him straight.

"That's supposed to be funny?" Kerry asked. "If George Bush thinks his deceptive rationale for going to war is a laughing matter, then he's even more out of touch than we thought. Unfortunately for the President, this is not a joke." Thank Heaven at least one of the candidates for president knows that certain subjects are too grim to make light of.

Anyway, to get back to Kerry's jest about shooting the president: This isn't a new theme for him. Shortly after the November 1988 presidential election, he made headlines with a similar knee-slapper about incoming Vice President Dan Quayle.

"The Secret Service is under orders," Kerry told a business audience in Lynn, "that if Bush is shot, to shoot Quayle."

And to think that some people don't find him funny.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com. 

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