Ohio native Chris Lamb's political comebacks book a witty look at retorts between candidates
by Tom Feran / Plain Dealer reporter
Tuesday October 14, 2008, 12:50 PM
Ohio native author Chris Lamb
To read a few of the witty responses from the book, click here.
Calvin Coolidge was a New Englander so close-mouthed that he was known as Silent Cal. A woman once accosted him at a White House dinner and gushed that she had told a friend she could get him to say more than two words.
"You lose," he replied.
Joe Biden might have had that story in mind last year when he was asked at a forum about his reputation for "uncontrolled verbosity" and whether he had the discipline for the world stage.
"Yes," he replied.
The one-word answer won laughter from the audience and upended Biden's reputation for long-windedness.
To Chris Lamb, it offers proof that the clever comeback remains alive and potent as a tool in politics.
"It's both a weapon and shield," he said. "You don't want to use it too often as a weapon, or people might think you're mean. But laughter is a wonderful bond."
Lamb started collecting zingers while growing up near Dayton, in a big family where "our place was sort of made by how well we insulted one another." Now a professor of communications at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, he gathered about 200 of his favorites, from Pericles to Putin, in the book "I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Putdowns, Comebacks and Ripostes."
"I actually have a list of them, not in the book, from the current campaign," he said. "It's not as bleak as you think it might be. John McCain had some good ones during the Republican primary."
One came, he said, when Mitt Romney insisted he was the GOP's candidate of change, after modifying his positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and other issues.
"McCain chuckled and responded, 'I just want to say to Gov. Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change.'
"Barack Obama had one of the more important comebacks of the campaign, during a Democratic debate when Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner. He was asked how he intended to move foreign policy in a different direction if elected. Since several of his advisers used to work for Bill Clinton, Hillary started laughing and said, 'I'm looking forward to hearing that, too.' When laughter subsided, Obama replied, 'Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well.' He got the last laugh."
He's also been having it in the current debates, Lamb said.
"I think Obama is a greater counterpuncher. He's got wit and this incredible skill, very rare in politics, called listening. Because of that he stands out from 98 percent of politicians. He knows when to smile and he knows when to be quiet."
The best comeback lines require listening, a nimble mind, a good sense of humor and timing, Lamb said.
"Winston Churchill said the secret of a spontaneous putdown is that all the best off-the-cuff remarks are prepared days beforehand. Everything is rehearsed. That's where listening comes in, knowing when to use it, like when Obama said, 'I think the Straight Talk Express lost a wheel on that one.' "
The much-quoted Churchill contributed the title to Lamb's book. In a famous exchange after he'd been drinking heavily at a party, Bessie Braddock, a Socialist member of Parliament, harshly said, "Mr. Churchill, you are drunk." He retorted, "And Bessie, you are ugly. You are very ugly. I'll be sober in the morning."
The British have a way with one-liners. Lamb's favorite comeback comes from 18th-century politician John Wilkes. After a rival yelled that Wilkes either would die on the gallows or of venereal disease, Wilkes replied, "That sir, depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."