Friday, March 14, 2008

Toledo City Paper on humor and Ohio politics

Ohio has contributed much to political humor

by Chris Lamb

published March 5th 2008

During a meeting with President Warren Harding, whose administration was tainted by scandal, comic Will Rogers said, "I would like to tell you all the latest jokes, Mr. President."
"You don't have to," Harding answered. "I appointed them all to office."
Harding’s response may have been his greatest contribution as president.
As every Ohio schoolchild knows, no state has produced more presidents than Ohio. One wonders where America would be today without William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Harding.
Without Harding and the others, the American presidency and American politics would have been deprived of some of its best wisecracks and wittiest responses. As the state approaches the March 4 primary, it’s only fitting that we remember Ohio’s contributions to political humor.
To wit:
After President James Garfield was wounded by an assassin’s bullet, he lay on his death bed for several weeks, restricted to a diet of oatmeal and lime water. When Garfield was told that the great Indian Sitting Bull was starving himself in captivity, Garfield snapped. “Let him starve.”
A moment went by, and the president added, “Better yet, send him my oatmeal.”
Before Grant was president, he was one of the Union Army’s top generals during the Civil War. He also was one of the Union Army’s top drinkers.
A temperance committee demanded that President Abraham Lincoln fire Grant because the general drank too much whiskey.
Lincoln paused for a moment and said, "Well, I wish one of you would tell me what kind of whiskey Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to every one of my generals."
As a general, Grant did not bear fools well. He once expressed his contempt for a certain officer. Another general protested that the man in question had been through ten campaigns.
"So has that mule, yonder,” Grant snapped, “but he's still a jackass."
Grant retained his dark humor while president. In 1875, Grant officially opened the State Department building, which was hideous in its architecture. A guide, who proudly gave Grant a full tour of the building, said, "One thing more, Mr. President. The building is fireproof."
"What a pity," Grant replied.
Ohio has the dubious distinction of having four of its presidents die in office before finishing their first term. Harrison and Harding died of natural causes. Garfield and McKinley were each assassinated.
McKinley inspired great loyalty – and apparently wit -- among his supporters when he ran for president.
During the 1900 Presidential Election between Democrat William Jennings Bryan and the Republican McKinley, a Democratic speaker announced confidently that Mrs. Bryan would be sleeping in the White House after Inauguration Day.
The Bryan supporter was then interrupted by a GOP supporter, who yelled, "If she is, she'll be sleeping with McKinley."
McKinley was succeeded by Teddy Roosevelt, who was succeeded by William Howard Taft, who was the last Ohioan to serve as president – though but not the last to run for president.
Most recently, Rep. Dennis Kucinich ran twice for the presidency. Other candidates got more votes but few got more laughs than Kucinich, an amateur ventriloquist who also does a killer Donald Duck voice – qualities rarely found in world leaders.
In a nod to his Eastern European roots, Kucinich famously once called the three pillars of civilization “polka, bowling and kielbasa.” Kucinich, who does not however eat kielbasa or any meats or dairy products, was once asked if he thought the Food and Drug Administration was always working in the best interests of the American people, Kucinich shook his head and replied, “That’s why I’m a vegan.”
Chris Lamb, a professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C., is the author of “I’ll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes.” He grew up in Kettering, Ohio, and received his Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University.

article from Tallahassee Democrat

March 13, 2008
Political put-downs just aren't what they used to be
Bill Cotterell
Capitol Curmudgeon
Tallahassee Democrat

The sad thing about the resignation of a top Barack Obama adviser who called Hillary Clinton "a monster" is not the schoolyard name-calling. It's the fact that political invective has lost so much wit and bite in this TV-and-Internet age.
If Samantha Power had spoken from prepared remarks, if she just had a few seconds to reflect, surely the Harvard professor would have come up with a devastating bon mot. The situation called for something that would, at once, raise the spectre of the Clintons' ruthless reputation and belittle it as the backroom politics of yesterday.
A really good put-down is a thing of beauty in politics. Just last Sunday, on the CBS program "Face the Nation," Bob Schieffer was lamenting how far we've fallen since Harry Truman called his critics "snollygosters." That's good stuff. We don't know what it means, we just know it's bad.
Around the same time, there was Alice Roosevelt Longworth's memorable description of New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey as "the little man on the wedding cake." Historians dispute whether she really said it, but it captured the priggish aloofness of Dewey's public image (another critic said he "could strut sitting down") while simply calling him "little."
A good put-down that cloaks the speaker in virtue upstages the other side. When some in Congress didn't want to seat a Mormon member from Utah, even though he did not practice polygamy, a garrulous old Georgia senator rose in his defense. "I don't see why we should hold po-liggamy against mah distinguished friend when he don't, personally, po-lig," the senator said, "especially considering that many of y'all who are supposed to be monogamous don't, personally, mo-nogg."
The best verbal body-slam of modern politics occurred when the late Lloyd Bentsen levelled Dan Quayle with his famous, "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Quayle's wide-eyed response was lost in applause but on target — the remark was uncalled for, as he never said he'd be another JFK.
Sometimes the best lines are self-inflicted. Here in Tallahassee, former House Speaker Don Tucker tells a good one on himself.
Tucker, known as much for sartorial elegance as his sharp tongue, said he was studying himself in a mirror one day and asked his wife, "Do you know how many really great men there are in America?"
"Oh," she replied, "probably one less than you think."
Some really great men have had the gift of thinking on their feet with compelling imagery.
Winston Churchill once said that an empty car pulled up to the prime minister's house and Clement Atlee got out. And when Bessie Braddock, a socialist member of Parliament, told Churchill he was drunk, he replied, "And, Bessie, you are ugly . . . I'll be sober in the morning."
That's the title — "I'll be Sober in the Morning" — of a wonderful little book by Chris Lamb, a communications professor at the College of Charleston. Lamb has collected "great political comebacks, put-downs and ripostes" from Pericles to President Bush.
He relates how Theodore Roosevelt, as an ex-president, attended a royal funeral in London. Kaiser Wilhelm asked Roosevelt to visit him the next day, "but be there at 2 o'clock sharp, because I can give you only 45 minutes."
"I'll be there at 2 sharp," TR one-upped him, "but I can give you only 20 minutes."
In Supreme Court arguments on the "false light" libel doctrine last week, an attorney told the justices about a suit brought against New York editor Horace Greeley by James Fenimore Cooper. Whatever injury there may have been, Greeley compounded it by saying he was confident of defending against a libel suit whether Cooper filed it in New York, "where my character is well-known," or in his home county, "where his character is well-known."
Pride, even egotism, makes for good one-liners. Lamb relates how a French citizen told President Charles de Gaulle that "my friends are not content with your policies."
"Well, change your friends," le grande Charles replied.
A woman gushed to Adlai Stevenson that "every thinking person will be voting for you," and he replied, "Madam, that is not enough. I need a majority." Stevenson was known for his wit, but that kind of haughty disdain for average voters must have helped him lose, twice, to President Eisenhower.
It's no coincidence that the decline of the clever comeback has accompanied the rise of high-speed communication. Lincoln, Henry Clay, both Roosevelts and Churchill didn't have e-mail or cable TV to contend with, or Saturday Night Live to take a spin on their every comment and deed.
In the old days, the best giant-killer ripostes became legend via word-of-mouth, reports in newspapers and magazines days or weeks after the fact and, no doubt, were embellished or tarnished in the retelling by friend and foe. No live TV or video replays for Churchill or Lincoln.
"Monster" belongs in pro wrestling, not presidential campaigning, despite their sometime similarities.
It shouldn't have to be a resignation offense. But surely campaign 2008 can give us better invective than that.
Contact Bill Cotterell at (850) 671-6545 or

Monday, March 10, 2008

from Beaumont (TX) Enterprise, 2 March 2008

Texas' sense of political humor

Twenty years ago, during a television debate between vice presidential candidates Republican Dan Quayle and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle tried to deflect questions about his youth and inexperience by comparing himself to President John F. Kennedy."I have as much experience as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency," Quayle said. Bentsen famously turned to Quayle and said, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
Bentsen won the exchange but George Herbert Walker Bush and Quayle defeated Michael Dukakis and Bentsen in the presidential election in November. When asked why the Democrats could not carry his home state of Texas, Bentsen responded, "I just wasn't able to convince enough voters that `Dukakis' was Greek for `Bubba.'"

Bentsen's line about Quayle, however, will forever be etched in American politics - and it left Quayle forever tainted as a both a punching bag and a punch line for comedians, satirists and commentators.

It's worth noting that Quayle would be largely forgotten had it not been for Bentsen and George H.W. Bush, another Texan (albeit a transplanted one), who chose Quayle as his running mate.

Without Texas, American politics would have been deprived of some of its best wisecracks and comebacks. As the state approaches the March 4 primary, it's only fitting that we remember Texas' contributions to political humor.

To wit:

When the infamous Huey Long was governor of Louisiana, he informed James "Pa" Ferguson, then governor of Texas, "If there had been a back door at the Alamo, there wouldn't have been a Texas.""But," replied Ferguson, "there was a back door - and that's why there's a Louisiana."

No state has cast as big a shadow over the nation's politics over the last half-century than Texas - and few politicians cast as big a shadow as Lyndon Johnson.

In the 1950s, U.S. Senators began installing phones in their cars as a symbol of status. When Republican Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen got his phone, he immediately called Democratic Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson

"Lyndon," Dirksen said smugly, "I just got a car phone. I thought I'd make my first call to you.""Just a minute, Ev," Johnson replied, "while I answer my other phone."

LBJ always got the last word - except with his family.

LBJ and his family believed that he would be the Democratic Party's nominee for president in 1960. But the nomination went to JFK, who was to be formally nominated at the party's convention in southern California. Johnson would instead be JFK's running mate. Johnson's mood darkened when one of his daughters was late returning from Disneyland. As the Johnsons hurried for the convention, LBJ groused, "We didn't come out here to see Disneyland." "I know," his daughter answered dejectedly. "But we didn't come out here to see you run for vice president either."

George W. Bush, while born in Connecticut, grew up in Texas and developed a dislike for the Eastern news media.

"I don't read half of what you write," he once told reporters. "We don't listen to half of what you say," one of the reporters responded. Bush then answered, "That's apparent in the half of what I read."

Chris Lamb is a professor of communication at the College of Charleston. He can be reached at