Charisse: The art of political attack
By MARC CHARISSE Evening Sun Editor
Article Launched: 05/18/2008 04:06:11 AM EDT
The Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, was embroiled in angry debate with John Wilkes, an 18th-century political reformer.
"Sir," Montagu charged, "I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox."
"That, sir, depends," Wilkes shot back, "on whether I first embrace your Lordship's principles or your Lordship's mistresses."
No, they just don't make political jabs like they used to. Modern pundits decry the coarsening of our political discourse, but it seems to me most politicians have gotten as thin-skinned as the rest of our too-quick-to-take-offense society.
Consider the furor late last week over a George Bush speech to Israeli leaders. Bush likened those who would negotiate with terrorists or those who support them with politicians who tried to appease Hitler on the eve of World War II.
I'm no big fan of the president's, but it didn't sound to me like a scurrilous personal attack on Barack Obama, whom he didn't even mention by name.
The Democrats, however, wasted no time acting all hurt and insulted.
Obama called it a "false political attack," as though the issue of negotiating with Iran or Hamas could be reduced to a true-false test question. Sure, the comment could have political repercussions, but it didn't seem all that out of line for a speech in Israel, where the issue has daily political relevance.
Still, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean thundered that Republican candidate John McCain must
distance himself from the president's remarks. You'd think Bush had called Obama himself a terrorist.
I guess we should come to expect hurt feelings in a thin-skinned political culture, in which politicians themselves stick closely to scripted banalities, lest they say something actually interesting - and potentially damaging.
But it wasn't always that way. We used to admire the pointed political attack, and the cutting comeback - in our rough-and-tumble culture of plain-spoken democracy. In his recently released "I'll be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns and Ripostes," communications professor Chris Lamb reminds us that the attack was once considered high art to be admired, rather than apologized for.
The book takes its title from the famous exchange between Bessie Braddock, a Socialist member of the British Parliament and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill, the story goes, had been drinking heavily at a party when Braddock scolded, "Mr. Churchill, you are drunk."
"And Bessie, you are ugly. You are very ugly," Churchill replied. "I'll be sober in the morning."
Churchill, one of the more successful politicians of the 20th century, well deserves his numerous entries in Lamb's book. Consider this exchange with the American-born politician Nancy Astor:
"If you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee," she scolded.
"If I were your husband, I'd drink it," he replied.
Lamb traces the fine art of political invective all the way back to the fifth century B.C., when Alcibiades debated his uncle, the great Athenian orator Pericles.
"When I was your age, Alcibiades, I talked just the way you are now talking," Pericles said condescendingly.
"If only I had known you, Pericles," Alcibiades replied, "when you were at your best."
And such comebacks have long been a part of American political history.
Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay and Massachusetts Sen. Daniel Webster were sitting outside a Washington hotel where they watched a man walk by with a pack of mules.
"Clay, there goes a number of your Kentucky constituents." Webster quipped.
"Yes," Clay retorted, "they must be on their way to Massachusetts to teach school."
A few modern American politicians - too few - have had memorable comebacks as well.
During a television debate against incumbent U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings in 1986, his opponent, Henry McMaster, challenged him to take a drug test.
"I'll take a drug test," Hollings responded, "if you'll take an IQ test."
As Lamb put it in a recent radio interview, "You want to leave your opponent red-faced and stammering and left [to] sort of pick up the pieces of their manhood in a thimble and go skulking off in silence."
Silence might be too much to hope for from a politician these days, but I'd settle for a memorable line now and again.