The high art of political putdowns
Chris Lamb Special to the Sentinel
October 21, 2007
John Wilkes, the 18th-century British political reformer, was debating John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, in the House of Parliament. The exchange kept increasing in bile until Montagu shouted at Wilkes that he would either die on the gallows or of venereal disease.
To which Wilkes responded, "That, sir, depends on whether I first embrace your Lordship's principles or your Lordship's mistresses."
There's no record of Montagu's response, or if he even had one. He probably put what was left of his manhood in a thimble and skulked away in silence.
To this day, no one has delivered a comeback so devastating and so spontaneous. In the rough-andtumble world of political debates, one hopes to have the last word. Republican presidential hopefuls will look for their opportunities tonight in Orlando.
In the last Republican debate two weeks ago, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addressed the long presidential campaign and took a swipe at former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, the former Law and Order actor who had finally entered the race after much speculation."This is a lot like Law and Order, senator," Romney said. "It has a huge cast, the series seems to be on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end."
Thompson then replied: "And to think, I thought I was going to be the best actor on stage."
Thompson's line received a few chuckles.
In a battle of wits, few were the equal of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. During a debate with Nancy Astor, a bitter rival, Astor snapped: "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee." Churchill calmly replied: "If you were my wife, Nancy, I'd drink it."
Churchill once revealed the secret behind the spontaneous putdown when he said, "All the best off-the-cuff remarks are prepared days beforehand."
In modern American politics, the most famous comeback belongs to Lloyd Bentsen, Michael Dukakis' running mate in the 1988 presidential election. Dukakis' opponent, George Herbert Walker Bush, had selected Dan Quayle as his running mate. The youthful Quayle tried to dismiss concerns about his inexperience by comparing himself to John F. Kennedy when JFK ran for president in 1960.
Quayle's advisers cautioned him against bringing up the JFK comparison during his nationally televised debate with Bentsen.Quayle ignored the advice, saying, "I have as much experience as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."
Bentsen was waiting: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine," Bentsen said calmly before landing the knockout punch. "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."Bush-Quayle won the election.
But Bentsen's putdown left Quayle forever tainted as a punchline in American politics.
Churchill, Bentsen and others have used the riposte as a potent political weapon.Others have used it to swat away an opponent's unwanted advances. During a television debate, Henry McMaster, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in South Carolina, challenged the incumbent, Fritz Hollings, then in his 70s, to take a drug test.
"I'll take a drug test," Hollings snapped, "if you'll take an IQ test."
Politics isn't just a blood sport; it's a spectator sport. New York Gov. Al Smith was delivering a campaign speech when someone in the audience yelled, "Tell us all you know, Al, it won't take long!"
To which Smith replied, "Better yet, I'll tell them all we both know, and it won't take any longer!"What the 2008 presidential campaign has thus lacked in clever repartee, it's more than made up for in smug sanctimony.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, we could really use someone like Abraham Lincoln.During one of the Lincoln- Douglas debates, the incumbent U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas told a conservative audience that he had once seen Lincoln selling whiskey. When it was his turn to speak, Lincoln made no attempt to dispute the charge. He agreed that he had once worked as a bartender.
"I was on one side of the bar serving drinks," Lincoln said, "and Douglas was on the other side drinking them."
Chris Lamb is a professor of Communication at the College of Charleston. His most recent book is "I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns and Ripostes," which will be published in November by Frontline Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.