March 13, 2008
Political put-downs just aren't what they used to be
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.