From Pericles to Obama
Thursday's Democratic debate added to a long and noble tradition of poltical putdowns.
By Chris Lamb
Saturday, December 15, 2007
During Thursday's debate among the Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sen. Barack Obama was asked how he would shift U.S. foreign policy in a different direction, given that several of his advisers once worked for President Bill Clinton. "I want to hear that," Sen. Hillary Clinton chimed in, provoking laughter. Obama waited a moment, and then quipped: "Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well." It was Obama who got the last laugh.
A sharp comeback can be a potent political weapon. But, so far, the current presidential campaign has been long on sound and fury and short on memorable exchanges between politicians.
That wasn't always the case. Here are 10 of the best political comebacks in history, as they've been passed down in the political lore.
1. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is said to have been drinking at a party when he bumped into Bessie Braddock, a prudish political opponent. "Mr. Churchill, you are drunk," Braddock said.
"And Bessie, you are ugly," Churchill said. And then, after a pause, he added: "I'll be sober in the morning."
2. There's also the story about Churchill's encounter with Lady Nancy Astor, who told him: "If you were my husband, I would poison your coffee."
"If you were my wife," Churchill replied, "I would drink it."
3. American presidency scholar Richard Norton Smith likes to cite a campaign-trail exchange between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Douglas claimed that Lincoln had been selling whiskey when they first met.
Lincoln made no attempt to dispute the charge. He agreed that he once worked as a storekeeper. "Many a time have I stood on one side of the counter," he said, "and sold Mr. Douglas whiskey on the other side."
4. In 1921, Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons. Not all of her colleagues welcomed her. One tried to embarrass her by asking, "Don't you wish you were a man?"
"No," Macphail replied. "Don't you?"
5. When Huey Long was governor of Louisiana, he supposedly told then-Texas Governor James "Pa" Ferguson: "If there had been a back door at the Alamo, there wouldn't have been a Texas."
"But there there was a back door -- and that's why there's a Louisiana," Ferguson said.
6. Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky and Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts were sitting outside a Washington hotel when, according to legend, a man walked by with a pack of mules. "Clay, there goes a number of your Kentucky constituents," Webster said.
"Yes," Clay replied, "they must be on their way to Massachusetts to teach school."
7. Then-Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) once found himself in an elevator with the diminutive -- but self-assured -- then-Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), who puffed out his chest to show off the expensive suit he'd just purchased. "What do you think?" Tower asked.
"It's very nice, but does it come in men's sizes?" Hollings replied.
8. During a 1986 debate agsinst Hollings, challenger Henry McMaster asked his opponent to take a drug test.
"I'll take a drug test if you'll take an IQ test," Hollings responded.
9. In the 5th century B.C., Alcibiades debated his uncle, the Greek orator Pericles. "When I was your age, Alcibiades, I talked just the way you are now talking," Pericles said.
"If only I had known you, Pericles, when you were at your best," Alcibiades said.
10. John Wilkes, an 18th-century political reformer, was involved in a particularly angry exchange with John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who said to Wilkes, "Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!"
Wilkes responded, "That, sir, depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."
The writer is a communication professor at the College of Charleston and author of "I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes."
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