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The Last Time a Republican Reigned in Big Business - 1903

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

TO WIT - THE POLITICAL INSULT

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 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. I guess puindits have never gotten it right.But then we come across the criticism of 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 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 his favorite target, 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 by 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.)She was described by Lord St. John of Fawsley this way: “When she speaks without thinking, she says what she thinks”, and 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?”A 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 perhaps 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, as has been pointed out, 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 without real power. This may explain why Churchill responded to the interruption as he supposedly, did. 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 his 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 (above) , “…essentially a prig…All the prigs spoke of him as the coming man”, and 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”. But 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 their 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 nest - “all s—t and sticks”. Clearly he was exempting 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 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 élan, 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 (above), 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. The septuagenarian 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 failed Presidential campaign, Dole was present in 1980 at the White House to attend a reception for former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, before they flew off to attend Anwar Sadat's funeral. Looking over the Blue Room crowded with Presidents, Dole was heard to comment, “There they are. See no evil, hear no evil and…evil.” Accurate, biting, funny and inventive; the very definition of wit.
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Sunday, January 04, 2009

TO LIGHT ONE SINGLE CANDLE

I wonder if you realize how dark the world has been for most of the last 10,000 years? For most of that time you could burn wood for light, but firewood was not a quickly renewable resource and Emperors and Kings prefered to build ships and thrones out of it, rather than incinerate it. Sure, you could burn olive oil in a lamp, but olive oil creates smoke, and it has a limited shelf life, and it is really not very portable. And then some Etruscan genius in the eleventh century B.C. invented a thing you could carry in your pocket and which burned very slowly. It was such a great invention that it was given the Sanskrit name “cand” meaning 'to give light'. And whoever that Etruscan Thomas Edison was, I bet he got stinking rich, mostly because the stuff they made candles out of - rancid animal fat - tended to produce a powerful stench when it was heated. It is stunning to realize how much human effort over the next 3,000 years was devoted to inventing the stink-less candle.The guy who finally did it was a Jew who escaped Seville just ahead of the Spanish inquisition. Jacob Rodriguez Rivera landed in Newport, Rhode Island in 1748 because eight years earlier the English were so desperate for white people willing to settle in America that George II had rescinded the requirement that colonists pledge their loyalty to him "upon the true faith of a Christian." With the removal of those five little words America was endowed with all the brains, blood and brawn the rest of the world didn’t approve of for one reason or another. That is what made us what we are, which is not a Christian nation, but a multi-religious nation, the most consistantly sucessful nation (over the last 200 years) in the world.Anyway, Jacob went into business with his brother-in-law, Moses Lopez, who was a candle maker. And while wandering the docks of Newport looking for supplies of animal fat Jacob stumbled upon the slaughter of a sperm whale. Now, whale blubber had long been boiled down for the oil it contained, but burning whale fat stank even worse than cow or pig fat, and since Whales were difficult to find, kill and slaughter, blubber was usually mixed with other fats to reduce the stench and stretch the more expensive stuff. But since the blubber was cheap Jacob bought a couple of barrels to see what he could make of it, and while he was at it, he also bought some spermaceti, because nobody knew what to make of that, either.
See, if you poke a hole in a Sperm Whale’s head you will find hundreds of gallons of the stuff. Maybe it helps the whales eco-locate their prey, and maybe it helps them dive so deep. No human is really sure. But it’s white and sticky and it looks like…well, you know what it looks like. That’s why they called them Sperm Whales.Within a few years Jacob developed the following process; each fall when the whaling fleets returned the spermaceti was bought from the whalers in 42 gallon barrels. (The barrels were filled with water going out, and after the crew drank the water, the empty barrels were returned filled with spermaceti for the trip back.) The stuff was boiled down and the residue was allowed to congeal over the winter into a spongy, sticky stinky mass. Yuck. Then, when “…the temperature rose” the stuff was shoveled into bags and pressed until the “winter –strained oil” was squeezed out. This was considered the creme-de-la-crème of sperm oil and sold for the highest price.After more processing and squeezing, Jacob was left with a black cake that could be melted and formed into smokeless, stink-less candles, ready for shipment in the spring. When they burned they smelled sweet and produced almost no smoke. And the light they made was such a pure white light that a “foot-candle”, the amount of light a spermaceti candle produces at a distance of one foot, remains the standard for measuring pure white light to this very day. Jacob’s only problem was that within a couple of years several competitors had guessed or stolen his process. So in 1761 the United Company of Spermaceti Chandlers decided to form a cartel. Jacob Rivera teamed up with Obediah Brown & Company, primarily a Quaker family business based in Providence, and with whalers along the east coast down to Philadelphia. They were all generally called 'The Spermaceti Trust’. The rules of The Trust set a top price of six pounds Sterling that its members would pay for a pound of spermaceti, and set the bottom price for finished candles its members would sell at one pound and one shilling for a hundred candles.
The hunt for the Sperm whales was on. From 1770 until the start of the American Revolution, The Trust produced 45,000 barrels of sperm oil annually, compared to just 8,500 barrels a year of oil from all other types of whales. After the War of 1812 The Trust became unofficially based on the Quaker power center of Nantucket Island, 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, where some 36 chandlers made the precious spermaceti candles. So much money was made that the Brown family endowed a university with the profits. By 1846 the tiny harbor in Natucket supported more than 700 whaling ships and more than 70,000 jobs, full and part time. Then, just after 11:00 p.m. on July 13 of 1846 a faulty stovepipe led to a fire which, by morning, had destroyed 250 buildings, seven chandler factories, tens of thousands of barrels of spermacti oil stored in warehouses and on wharves, (three of the town’s four wharves burned completely), stores and warehouses, blacksmiths’, rope-makers’ and Sail-makers’ workshops and leaving 800 people homeless. The proud town was reduced to begging for “…provisions, clothing, bedding, money…” Help poured in but the golden age of the Spermaceti Trust was over. Nine years later the Trust was completly broken and the industry had been cut by half. By 1875 the island’s population had been reduced by 2/3rd, down to just 3,200 souls.The reason for the breaking up of The Trust was not just the Nantucket fire, of course. That didn't help. But what really hurt was the discovery of gold in California. A ship owner could make as much in six months carrying miners and mining equipment to California as he did on one three year search for whales in the Artic. At least half the forrest of masts of abandoned ships in San Francisco Bay, left adrift when their crews went hunting for gold, were ex-whalers.
And The Trust was also doomed by the development of drilling for petroleum in Canada and Pennsylvania. Krosene lamps replaced spermaceti lamps and candles because they were cheaper and almost as odorless.
The new baron of oil would be John D. Rockefeller, who called his company “Standard Oil” to sooth buyers used to variations in oil grades produced from different species of whales. And he supplied his product in the same 42 gallon barrels used to supply whale oil. (We still measure oil in terms of those 42 gallon barrels). John D. seemed to be reassuring his customers that nothing had changed in the oil business, except the names of the people who ran The Trust.

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