JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Sunday, November 22, 2009


I can say without fear of contradiction that Abraham Lincoln was the most hated American politician in history. About one in four Americans spent four years trying to shoot him, for heaven’s sake.

“Honest Abe” was described by one contemporary magazine as a “Filthy story-teller, despot liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, ignoramus, scoundrel, perjurer, robber, swindler, tyrant, field-butcher, (and) land pirate.” And a Chicago newspaper denounced one Lincoln speech by saying, “We did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln could produce a paper so slipshod, so loose-joined, so puerile, not alone in literary construction but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp. He has outdone himself.” Wow; well at least the paper deigned to call him “Mister Lincoln”. Of course, the criticism is softened somewhat when you realize the Chicago Times was reviewing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

But then you come across the criticism of Mr. Lincoln offered by Mr. Peter Muggins, a private citizen from Ohio. He wrote the President the following letter: “G-damn you, and your G-damned old, hell fired, G-damned soul to hell. G-damn your G-damned families’ G-damned souls to hell. And G-damn your G-damned friends to hell.” After reading an outburst such as that what else is there to say except…everything?

It is easy to insult someone if you are willing to be reduced to vulgarity. The first recorded insult was carved on the walls of an Egyptian tomb 4,300 year ago, when one fisherman ordered a second, “Come over here, you copulater.” And it probably wasn’t original, even then.

Lincoln occasionally gave as good as he got, of course. He described one opponent as a man who could “…compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know.” But mostly, his wit was addressed to self depreciating humor. When accused of pandering to voters, Lincoln quickly replied, “If I were two faced, would I be wearing this one?” Compared to the horrible things others said about him, Lincoln’s venom toward himself couldn’t hold a candle.

General George McClellan, who spent almost two years in close contact with Mr. Lincoln, described him as “…nothing more than a well meaning baboon”, and “An offensive exhibition of boorishness and vulgarity.” Of course history has since judged McClellan to be one of the biggest horse’s behinds in history, so the source of the insult must have some bearing when judging the quality of the insult.

Because the issue here is not accuracy, nor political propriety or even civility; it is wit, to wit “The natural ability to perceive and understand – intelligence; keenness and quickness of perception or discernment; ingenuity, as in to live by one’s wits; the ability to perceive and express in an ingeniously humorous manner”; to wit:

In my subjective search for the wittiest political insult I have been disappointed by most modern commentators on George W. Bush, for various reasons. Most fall victim, as Ron Reagan Jr. did when he asked of our former President before he was our President, “What is his accomplishment? That he’s no longer an obnoxious drunk?” Mr. Reagan gets points for bitterness and perhaps accuracy (he did know the younger Bush personally) but I must correspond with the adage that “He who has never been an obnoxious drunk at least once in his life, has not lived”. And the missing element in Mr. Reagan’s observation is that elusive quality of “wit”.

I have eliminated most professional commentators from my search because they have staffs who daily submit attempts at wit, which are then weeded through for prize examples, to wit: Jay Leno on Bush being caught by a microphone using an obscenity at an international conference, “It’s not a big deal, President Bush using a four-letter word. Now if Bush used a four-syllable word…that would be unbelievable”; or David Letterman on the results of a poll; “One percent of Americans participating in this poll believe Dick Cheney is the best Vice President ever. Everybody else in the poll believes that one percent should be wearing funny hats”.

The same commentators are eliminated from contention as regards political insults in general, and for the same reason. To wit, Letterman’s riff on one of his favorite targets, Senator John McCain; “He looks like the guy who’s backed over his own mailbox. He looks like the guy at the supermarket who is confused by the automatic doors. He looks like the guy at the movies whose wife has to repeat everything”, and Stephen Colbert on the same subject, to wit: “John McCain may be behind, but the man is a fighter. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit. He used to, but it was stored in the same part of his brain that remembered to vet his running mate.”

So I have broadened my search to the world stage but limited it to actual politicians, and for a time I had hopes I had found a choice subject in that indomitable woman, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, known to her fellow politicians as “Attila the Hen” (Clement Freud), “Petain in petticoats” and “La Pasionaria of middle-class privilege” (Denis Healey), “The Immaculate Misconception (Norman St. John-Stevas) or simply “Virago Intacta” (various sources.)

Ms. Thatcher was described by Lord St. John of Fawsley this way: “When she speaks without thinking, she says what she thinks”. Clive James described her speeches as sounding, “…like the book of Revelations read out over a railway station public address system by a headmistress of a certain age wearing calico knickers.” Johnathan Aiken questioned her grasp of international events. “She probably thinks Sinai is the plural of sinus”. And Denis Healey compared her rages to “…charging about like a bargain basement Boadicea.”

The depths were surely plumbed however when Tony Banks accused her of behaving “…with all the sensitivity of a sex-starved boa-constrictor.” In fact the only drawback to Ms. Thatcher as a contender in my search is that she was not as good a wit as the wits she inspired.

The reverse was true of the prince of the British political witticism, legendary Prime Minister Winston Churchill, not for the way he was described but for the way he described others. He spoke of the man elected to replace him in 1946 this way; “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, (Clement) Atlee got out. He is a modest man who has much to be modest about”. Of another opponent Churchill said, “I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been better if he had never been born. He once stumbled over the truth, but hasty picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”

Winston described his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, as looking at foreign affairs “…through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe.” And he observed that “Harold Wilson is going around the country, stirring up apathy.” And at the award ceremony where Lord Mountbatten was promoted and presented with a medal for bravery after his destroyer was sunk in the Mediterranean, “What could you hope to achieve except to be sunk in a bigger and more expensive ship next time?”

An ever dutiful socialite, Churchill once bumped into his hostess, Bessie Braddock, at a party. He excused himself, but Ms. Braddock scolded, “Winston, you’re drunk!” To which Winston replied, “Bessie, you’re ugly. And tomorrow I shall be sober.” At another party Lady Astor told him, “Winston, if you were my husband I would flavor your coffee with poison” Churchill told her, “Madam, if I were your husband, I should drink it.”

But Churchill’s best rejoinder may be apocryphal. While he was sitting on the toilet an aide supposedly knocked on the door to remind him that the Lord of the Privy Seal wanted to speak with him. Now, the Lord of the Privy Sea is not a Lord, is privy to nothing, and holds no seal. He is an advisor to the Prime Minister without a cabinet position, and so a person with no real power. This may explain why Churchill responded to the interruption as he supposedly did. Through the closed bathroom door he told the aide to, “Tell the Lord Privy Seal that I am sealed in my privy, and can only deal with one s—t at a time.” The story may be myth, but it is clear that Winston stood head and shoulders above his contending wits while on the attack.

The Brits have an advantage in political wit-ery because of the weekly “Question Time” which forces their Prime Ministers to submit to cross examination directly from their  opponents in full public view, requiring both sides of the aisle to live by their wits. This has given rise to such lifelong political duels as the one-sided war between Benjamin Disraeli, who called his great adversary, William Gladstone , “…essentially a prig…All the prigs spoke of him as the coming man”. Disraeli noted that “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. And if anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity”.

And the best that Gladstone could respond with was to complain that he lost an election because, “We have been borne down in a torrent of gin and beer”. I guess Gladstone was a prig, after all. It’s no wonder then that Queen Victoria complained that Gladstone, in private conversation with her, always spoke to her as if she were a public meeting.

The only nation that comes close to the erudite viciousness of the English is the Australians, and they place heavy emphises on the visciousness. And the Australian  one-man Olympic insult team – one time Labor Party Prime Minister, the right honorable Paul Keating, who once said that most politicians have brains like a sparrow’s nests - “all s—t and sticks”.  Clearly he meant to exempt himself.

It was Keating who described an opposition member as “..a shiver waiting for a spine”, and labeled another as “a desiccated coconut”, “…a lizard on a rock, alive but looking dead.”, and “…the brain damaged Leader of the opposition.” Keating described listening to a speech by John Hewson as similar to “…being flogged with a warm lettuce” and Andrew Peacock as “…an intellectual rust bucket.” And when Peacock repeated an old charge against Keating, the P.M. described the attack as “A dog returning to his vomit.” Keating even described one opponent as “All tip and no iceberg”, and a “pre-Copernican obscurantist”, whatever that is.

But best of all of Paul Keating’s insults is, in my opinion, his comparison of Malcom Fraser to “…an Easter Island statue with an arse full of razor blades.” Ouch.

Yes, the world is filled with political insults that display wit, verve and √©lan, as when one British M.P. called another “..a semi-house trained polecat.”, or when Loyld George described Neville Chamberlin as “A retail mind in a wholesale business.”. An Italian politician described Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi as clinging to data “…the way a drunkard clings to a lampposts, not for illumination but to keep him standing up”. Sam Huston said that Thomas Jefferson processed “…all the characteristics of a dog, except loyalty.” And when told that Dan Quayle had announced his intention to become George H.. Bush’s “Pit Bull”, Bill Clinton observed that Quail must have “…every fire hydrant in America worried.”

The supreme American professional political wit (although he never ran for office) was and always will be H. L. Mencken, the man who described democracy as "...the pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” It was Mencken who said that if Franklyn Roosevelt became convinced that supporting cannibalism would help him win an election “he would be fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday.”

When describing President Warren G. Harding, Mencken wrote, “He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm pish and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

It was Mencken who said that “A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar”. But Mencken hit his stride when he stooped to describe Calvin Coolidge. “He slept more than any other president, whether by day or night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored.”

But did Coolidge inspire Mencken to deliver the deftest, wittiest political insult in history? I fear not. Nor was it delivered by Dorothy Parker, the fem-fatalist writer and razor wit, who, on being told that Coolidge was dead, immediately asked, “How can they tell?”

Nor was it the old Frenchman Georges Clemenceau, who sat through a bombastic speech by British Prime Minster Lloyd George, even though Clemenceau understood not a word of English. At the end of the speech the septuagenarian Frenchman shook his head in awe and whispered to an aide, “Oh, if I could only piss the way he speaks”; point taken. But still it falls short.

No, I believe the best, most accurate, most vicious witticism ever uttered by any politician sprang from the lips of Bob Dole, Republican workhorse and American Presidential candidate. Well before his own failed Presidential campaign, Dole attended a  1980 White House reception for former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, before they flew off to attend Anwar Sadat's funeral. Looking over the White House's Blue Room crowded with ex-Presidents, Dole was heard to comment, “There they are. See no evil, hear no evil and…evil.”

Accurate, biting, funny and inventive; and the very definition of wit.
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