The tone in Washington is caustic. So we’ve been hearing for years now. In 2000, George W. Bush promised to change the tone, to make it more bipartisan. He didn’t. In 2008, Barack Obama promised to change the tone, to make it more civil. He made it less so. And the 2012 election was one of the most vicious in recent memory.
The truth is, the tone in Washington has always tended toward incivility. That is, unless one counts the often false civility of Senate-speak—“My good friend, the Senator of blah, blah, blah”—as civility. The difference in tone between the Washington of today and the Washington of yesterday is one of rhetorical flourish. The politicians of yesteryear knew how to use their tongues as tomahawks. They loved the English language—reading widely, writing diaries, and composing their own speeches.
This gave them elastic and quick minds . . . and tongues with the ability to marshal wickedly witty words in the battle of ideas. Politicians today seem to neither read much nor write at all, contributing to dull brains and sluggish tongues. When it comes to critiquing the ideas of their opponents, or letting us know what they really think about their “good friend,” modern lawmakers use sloppy and boring words, like a three-year-old insulting a playmate by calling him a “poo-poo head.”
Not so our forefathers.
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During the very first Congress, Vice President John Adams was keen to elevate the title for the president beyond the very republican “Mr. President.” This led many in the Senate to question Adams’s commitment to republican principles and to accuse him of being a monarchist. With bitting satire, many took to addressing Adams not as “Mr. Vice President” but as “His Rotundancy.”
James Callender, a muckraker for Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, once called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Now that is anything but boring or sloppy.
Later in our history, Senator Henry Clay was characterized by an opponent as “being so brilliant yet so corrupt, which, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, shines and stinks.” In 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, on the Senate floor, called Stephen Douglas a “noisome, squat and nameless animal.” Sumner went on to tongue-lash Andrew Butler, of South Carolina, as one who had “chosen a mistress . . . who though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, Slavery.” At which point Preston Brooks, a fellow South Carolinian, attacked Sumner and beat him with a walking stick.
Abraham Lincoln was once called a “gawky, long-armed ape” by the man who would later become his Secretary of War. And one of Lincoln’s generals, McClellan, who challenged Lincoln for the presidency in 1864, said the President was “nothing more than a well meaning baboon” and “an offensive exhibition of boorishness and vulgarity.”
It’s within the nature of fallen humans to play the game of politics in a rough and tumble manner, including sharp-tongued gibes. But politicians today use blunt instruments. The most our lawmakers can come up with is “right-wing nutjobs” and “lipstick on pigs.” Former Speaker of the House, Nancy Polosi, skewered George W. Bush with “incompetent,” “total failure,” and “having to sweep up after him.” (Ouch!) And the verbal dexterity of Senator Harry Reid is mind-boggling: George W. Bush was a “liar” and a “loser,” “the worst President we ever had.” (I’m sure Bush was ready to whack Reid with a walking stick after those witty remarks.)
My response to most political repartee these days is . . . You, sir, are a dullard!
So . . .
At the risk of contributing to the incivility already within the country, I’d like to draw attention to these Menckenesque barbs in an attempt to help our politicians sharpen their tomahawks.
- Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Theodore’s daughter) on Calvin Coolidge: “He looks as though he’s been weaned on a pickle.”
- Lyndon Johnson on Gerald Ford: “He’s a nice guy, but he played too much football with his helmet off.”
- John Montagu and John Wilkes: “You will die, sir, either on the gallows or from the pox” (Montagu). “That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress” (Wilkes).
- Harry Truman and Winston Churchill on Clement Attlee: “Clement Attlee came to see me the other day. He struck me as a very modest man” (Truman). “He has much to be modest about” (Churchill).
- Abraham Lincoln on a fellow attorney: “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.”
- James G. Blaine on Benjamin Franklin Butler: “A lamentably successful cross between a fox and a hog.”
- Winston Churchill on Stanley Baldwin: “He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”
- Margot Asquith (wife of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith) on Winston Churchill: “He would kill his own mother just so that he could use her skin to make a drum to beat his own praises.”
- Harold Ickes on Hugh Johnson: “The General is suffering from mental saddle sores.”
- Mark Twain on Congress: “Reader, suppose you were an idiot; and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”
- John Tower on a political opponent: “If stupidity ever reaches $40 a barrel, I want drilling rights on his head.”
Such language will not change the tone in Washington, but it certainly will make for more interesting listening. Regrettably, however, our political leaders are too dull and sluggish to rise above the stinging retort of “poo-poo head.”
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter.
A form of this article first appeared on February 25, 2010 at www.derrickjeter.com. Copyright © Derrick G. Jeter. All rights reserved worldwide. Use by permission.
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