Zing! An Old Weapon Gathers Dust
Today's scripted and choreographed negative campaigns just aren't in the same league as the let 'er rip oratory of old.
by Randy Barrett
Sat. May 17, 2008
"Going negative" has become the countercharge du jour in the Democratic presidential primarython, but the spitballs traded by Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton pale in comparison to the memorable artillery exchanges of politics past.
Today's genteel attacks are typically delivered by surrogates and countered by a flurry of press releases. The broadsides, if they can be called that, are studiously couched and thoroughly prefabricated. In earlier times, insults were often off-the-cuff and delivered face-to-face--and occasionally settled with firearms.
In 1827, former Rep. Robert Brank Vance of North Carolina quarreled with his successor, Rep. Samuel Carson, during a re-election debate. Vance was running to regain his seat, and he lambasted Carson for supporting public funding to rebuild Alexandria, Va., which had suffered a major fire. The tense meeting ended with Vance calling Carson a "coward." Vance fell to Carson's dueling pistol three weeks later.
Most often, words alone proved ample ammunition to lay an enemy low. The testy and eccentric Sen. John Randolph of Virginia possessed a famously acid tongue and often devoured his unfortunate opponents, much to the entertainment of Washington's elite during the early 19th century. "He is a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt," Randolph famously said of Secretary of State Edward Livingston. "He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight."
Such poetic put-downs were commonplace. "Oratory was more grandiloquent in the 19th century," Senate Associate Historian Donald Ritchie says. "That included invective as well as praise." Nineteenth-century politicians did have one escape route from intemperate remarks uttered against colleagues, Ritchie adds. Such attacks were often quietly removed from the Congressional Record at night by the offending lawmaker--a move that was generally regarded as an apology.
Few politicians delivered one-liners to devastating effect better than Rep. Thomas Reed, R-Maine, who served as speaker of the House from 1889 to 1891 and again from 1895 to 1899. Unimpressed by two lawmakers, Reed once commented: "They never open up their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge." To a member of his own party who had bungled the handling of a bill, he said (in a Maine drawl), "You are too big a fool to lead and you haven't got the sense enough to follow." Both quotes are cited in Alvin Josephy's book On the Hill: A History of the American Congress.
Reed is credited with forcing tough new quorum rules on the House that made the chamber more efficient and the speakership more powerful. But his tendency to verbally flay his contemporaries ultimately derailed his career. "People enjoyed it, but Reed stung enough people that it hurt him personally," says Randy Strahan, an associate political science professor at Emory University. Reed sought the White House in 1896 but failed to win the Republican nomination.
"People would laugh [with] Reed, but they were afraid they'd be the next target," Ritchie says.
Political-insult connoisseurs agree that zingers work best when they are personal, accurate, and funny. "A good insult leaves your opponent red-faced, mumbling, and sweeping up what pieces of his manhood are left on the floor," says Chris Lamb, an associate communications professor at the College of Charleston and the editor of I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns & Ripostes. "It's a tattoo that says, 'I'm a boob.' "
Sen. Chauncey Depew of New York once looked at President Taft's immense girth and asked what he intended to name the child when it was born. "If it's a girl, I shall name it for my wife," Taft replied. "If it's a boy, I will name him Junior. But if it is, as I suspect, just gas, I will call it Chauncey Depew."
Abraham Lincoln exhibited a self-deprecating sense of humor to great effect. During one of his famed debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas, his opponent called him "two-faced." Replied Lincoln: "I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"
The arrival of C-SPAN TV cameras on the House floor in 1979 (and in the Senate in 1986) dramatically altered the nature of verbal jousting between politicians, some experts say. And the digital 24/7 mass-media machine has made everyone even more cautious. "Public figures now are not encouraged to be witty or spontaneous," says Robert Dawidoff, a history professor at Claremont Graduate University.
Republican political consultant Bill Greener thinks that the problem goes deeper. "There is a draining of the sort of tongue-in-cheek affection for the other side--that you're both on the playing field."
John McCain is well known for his astringent asides about colleagues, but so far in the presidential campaign he has kept a tight rein on his tongue. Obama and Clinton have been equally careful. Has the political zinger become a lost art?
Lamb says no, but he thinks that the climate isn't as conducive to verbal swordplay as it once was. "A hundred and fifty years ago, politicians didn't have their every word and movement choreographed by consultants and pollsters who make sure [everyone] stays on message and doesn't say or do anything they might regret in the morning," he points out.
The political landscape has also grown more culturally complex, says Democratic strategist Anita Dunn. "In the old days, you only had white Protestant males running," she says. "There was no diversity, and candidates didn't have to worry about gender or ethnic or religious differences."
Despite the rough-and-tumble aspect of politics, modern voters appear to be more uncomfortable with ad hominem attacks than their lever-pulling forebears. "They don't want things to appear personal," Dunn says. "The personal pejorative is now seen by voters as extraordinarily mean-spirited, and it produces a backlash."
The media are quick to amplify the opprobrium, and that isn't necessarily a good thing, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He feels that negative attacks that are factually correct serve a useful purpose for the electorate. "In order to have a complete picture, you need both" positive and negative information about a candidate, he contends.
Sabato scoffs at the notion that discourse between candidates should always be sunny and polite. "That's laughable," he says. "Politics is the rough, cutting edge of democracy. It's our substitute for coups d'etat and riots in the streets."
Effective zingers have changed the game even in modern politics. President Reagan completely defused the issue of his advanced age with this showstopper against his 1984 rival, Walter Mondale: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale smiled weakly--and could never bring the issue up again. He went on to lose the election by a landslide.
According to Greener, Reagan's advisers warned him that he would face the age question in the debate, and the president assured his handlers he was ready for it. He delivered the line with the timing of the trained actor he was. "Reagan knew how to use silence as a tool," Greener says.
Other comebacks have worked equally well, notably Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's slam of Republican Sen. Dan Quayle, who made the mistake of comparing himself to President Kennedy during their vice presidential debate in 1988. "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy," Bentsen replied. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Still, Bentsen and Michael Dukakis lost the election and Quayle went on to be vice president, although the Hoosier's later bid for the White House flopped.
The tart-tongued Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., says that the best insults are delivered ad lib. "Zingers really have to be spontaneous," Frank told National Journal. "If it's effective, it's got to be based on something peculiar to" your target. When done right, "it's embarrassing and undercuts people."
Frank has been unafraid to skewer Republican presidents and members of his own party alike. Of President Bush's Iraq policy and problems with the nation's economy, Frank said in 2004, "Rather than the boy who cried wolf, George Bush is the reverse. He claims that there is nothing wrong when there is. He's the boy who cried, 'Nice doggy.' "
Other modern lawmakers have been equally good--and hilarious--on their feet. In 1990, then-Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., unexpectedly found himself being grilled about his suit by ABC newsman Sam Donaldson on This Week With David Brinkley. "Senator, you're from the great textile-producing state of South Carolina," said the obviously toupeed Donaldson. "Is it true you have a Korean tailor? Let's see the label in there."
Without missing a beat, Hollings responded: "I bought it at the same place right down the street ... where you got that wig, Sam."
When the program ended, Hollings turned to his press aide and said sagely, "Take a long look around this studio. We won't be invited back here any time soon."