There was a great brouhaha in the media recently over a couple of alleged insults directed at national political figures. An advisor to Barack Obama was forced to resign from her position in his campaign when it was reported that she had referred to Hillary Clinton as a “monster.” And long-time Clinton friend and advisor James Carville came under substantial criticism when he referred to Bill Richardson as “Judas” for having forsaken Hillary and thrown his support behind Obama.
These kinds of stories raise an obvious question. Have we become a nation of sissies? Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time getting worked up about either alleged insult. People in general, and politicians in particular, ought to have developed thick enough skins to withstand a little name calling without getting hysterical and crying foul. Anyone in the public eye who pretends to be shocked and offended by being called a “monster” or a “Judas” is either posturing or naïve. Politicians who profess to be offended by such remarks are, in my humble opinion, a few sandwiches short of a picnic. A few fries short of a Happy Meal. A few peas short of a casserole. Don’t have all their cornflakes in one box. Have no grain in their silo. Have too much yardage between their goal posts.
Politicians in particular seem to enjoy pretending to be devastated by every unkind word uttered by an opponent. The only thing about such insults that insults me is if they are crude or pedestrian in nature. A good, clever, well thought-out insult can itself be a thing of beauty. Just calling someone a monster or a Judas is hardly worth the effort. There was a time when the political insult was virtually an art form, and one of its highest practitioners was the great English Prime Minster Winston Churchill.
In speaking of a fellow member of Parliament, Churchill once described a colleague as “having all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” Churchill also once referred to a political rival as “a modest little person, with much to be modest about.” The great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow once remarked about some of his adversaries: “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” Mark Twain expressed similar feelings when he remarked of a recently deceased critic: “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”
Abraham Lincoln once described a rival politician as a man who could “compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know.” Oscar Wilde remarked of a personal rival: “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” Samuel Johnson described a legendary bore: “He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others.” James “Scotty” Reston, the late columnist for the New York Times, once described Richard Nixon as a man who had “inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, overcame them.” Civil War General Phil Sheridan managed to insult an entire state when he said “If I owned Texas and hell, I’d rent out Texas and live in hell.”
There are countless other clever and witty insults in the American lexicon of political discourse: (“ He is a self-made man and worships his creator.” “He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up. “He has delusions of adequacy.” “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever.”)
But perhaps my favorite insult is the one offered by the great Mae West. Speaking of a leading man she was less than enamored with, she suggested that “his mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”
Next week, a few thoughts on what I consider to be the second saddest news story of the year.
Islander Tom Tyner is an attorney
for the Trust for Public Land. He is author
of “Skeletons From Our Closet,”
a collection of writings on the island’s latte scene.