The art of political humor
By CHRIS LAMB - Guest Columnist
On Oct. 5, 1988, Dan Quayle, the Republican vice presidential candidate, and Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, debated one another on national television. When a reporter questioned Quayle about his relative lack of political experience, Quayle responded by saying, “I have as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.”
Bentsen turned to Quayle and responded: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mind. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Twenty years later, Bentsen’s line remains arguably the best known comeback line in modern politics. It should serve as a cautionary tale for presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama and their respective running mates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, as they prepare for their debates. In the dog-eat-dog world of politics, nobody wants to be on the Quayle end of a put-down.
The ability to deliver a sharp riposte that leaves a rival red-faced and speechless can be a potent political weapon. And in modern American politics, few were the equal of former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina.
Hollings once found himself on an elevator with the diminutive and incredibly vain Sen. John Tower of Texas. Tower puffed out his chest to show off the expensive suit he had just purchased.
“What do you think?” Tower gushed.
“Does it come in men’s sizes?” Hollings quipped.
During one of Hollings’ re-election campaigns, he was debating Republican challenger Henry McMaster when McMaster inexplicably challenged Hollings, then in his 70s, to take a drug test. “I’ll take a drug test,” Hollings snapped, “if you’ll take an IQ test.”
Hollings won the debate and the election.
During his presidential run in 1984, Hollings and the other Democratic candidates were discussing their qualifications before a crowd of voters. After U.S. Sen. John Glenn of Ohio droned on at length about his historic orbit as an astronaut in 1962, Hollings turned to Glenn and snapped, “But what have you done in this world?”
Hollings got the laughs but not the nomination.
This raises the flip side of the cautionary tale, this one for those politicians with rapier wits: Those who live by the rapier wit often die by the rapier wit. It’s doubtful that Hollings received any invitations to the White House during the Bill Clinton administration after famously saying that Clinton was “as popular as AIDS in South Carolina.”
During a television interview on the ABC program, “This Week With David Brinkley,” reporter Sam Donaldson, who wore an artless hairpiece, began grilling Hollings about the expensive suit he was wearing. “Senator, you’re from the great textile-producing state of South Carolina,” Donaldson said. “Is it true you have a Korean tailor Let’s see the label in there.”
Without missing a beat, Hollings responded: “I bought it right down the street from where you got that wig.”
When the program ended, Hollings turned to a press aide and said: “Take a long look around this studio. We won’t be invited back here any time soon.”
Dr. Lamb, a professor of Communication at the College of Charleston, is the author of I’ll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes (Frontline Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org,