Leaders’ humor – in Kazakhstan and elsewhere – makes life a little brighter01 april 2011, 17:21
I love leaders with a sense of humor.
The ability to crack a joke or to laugh helps leaders in any country connect with those they work with or those they represent.
I remember even decades later some of the funny lines that leaders of my own country – the United States – included in speeches or uttered spontaneously.
And I’ve seen some of Kazakhstan’s leaders’ humor at work.
Many Americans disliked Ronald Reagan’s policies, but they liked him as a person – and one reason was his humor.
In the two presidential elections he won, the Republican’s Democratic opponents – Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984 – tried to make Americans feel uneasy about Reagan’s age.
At almost 70, he was the oldest person to become president when he was inaugurated in 1981.
He was 73 when he ran for re-election in 1984, making him even more vulnerable to questions about whether he had the mental acuity and the health to continue handling America’s most demanding political job.
He cut the legs out from under those raising the age issue at a debate with his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, who was much younger.
“I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan said with a smile. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Americans loved the line – and, like me, many never forgot it.
Kazakhstan leaders – both politicians and non-politicians – have come up with flashes of humor I’ve remembered as well.
I interviewed Serik Kulmurzayev, the managing director of the Asian Winter Games, a few days before the event was to start in late January of this year.
Kulmurzayev was working long days at the time, putting together the final touches on an extravaganza that millions around the world would be paying attention to. He had to have been feeling stressed.
But when an American journalist with me asked him what Kazakhstan would do to help athletes from warm countries such as Malaysia cope with local temperatures that dipped below zero, Kulmurzayev answered: “We can get them to drink vodka and give them beshbarmak (a hearty national dish of lamb, noodles and broth),” he said. “They will be happy.”
I was happy for Kulmurzayev that the games came off without a hitch.
I got a feel for Kairat Kelimbetov’s sense of humor shortly after interviewing him late last year.
The interview with the head of the Samruk Kazyna sovereign wealth fund was pleasant and instructional, but its main theme -- Kazakhstan’s development – offered little grist for the humor mill.
A day later I mentioned to an American-journalist colleague how pleased I was to have landed an interview with someone as important as “the head of Samruk Kazyna.”
We were at another press event at the time, and a Norwegian journalist overhead me.
“Why are you so excited about getting an interview with the head of a casino?” she asked.
She thought I’d said I’d interviewed the head of Samruk Casino.
I thought Kelimbetov might enjoy this story, so I relayed it to a member of his staff.
“He really enjoyed that story,” she said – a sure-fire giveaway that he had a sense of humor.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev showed his fun side when he made a televised address on Women’s Day last month.
Most of the address was a salute to women.
Nazarbayev pointed out that not only are women a key to family stability but they also make a major contribution to Kazakhstan’s economy. Women account for 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, he said.
He noted that 87 percent of medical employees are women, a number of women serve in Parliament and many women hold local, regional or national government positions.
Then he slipped in his zinger. The president said women spend more on themselves combined than the $1.3 billion that Kazakhstan spends on its military each year. “This is not surprising, as women need to achieve victory every day," he smiled.
I asked Kazakh friends later if they remembered the line. They smiled and said they had.
It goes to show how valuable a commodity humor is – whether it comes from a friend or from a head of state.