In Praise of Political Insults
July 2, 2008
Wall Street Journal

The great American political insult is older than the nation itself. Ben Franklin, writing in 1771 before the States were even United, lamented "Libeling and Personal Abuse, which is of late Years become so disgraceful to our Country." Not even George Washington was spared: Tom Paine raged about his "treachery" and "pusillanimity."

By the time of the third U.S. administration, Thomas Jefferson had seen enough of the democratic officeholder's fate to perceive that "it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it." So it has passed.

But insults, unlike imperfect man, are not created equal. In March, Samantha Power, a scholar-activist then on the Barack Obama campaign, called Hillary Clinton a "monster." "You just look at her and think, 'Ergh,'" she elaborated. It is encouraging that she was thrown from the campaign, but her insult was only a disgrace because of its insipidity.

It is an old parlor game to gripe that our political wit fails the coruscating standard of a Benjamin Disraeli or a Winston Churchill. But what, after all, makes for an effective political insult?

The answer is style. Too coarse, and the abuser sounds malicious. Too unimaginative, and the words evaporate en route. Too petty, and the insulter is harmed more than the insultee. Too distant from truth, and it just won't stick. Bill Moyers's jibe that "hyperbole was to Lyndon Johnson what oxygen is to life" is an attempt at wit; the real thing is Bill Buckley's remark that LBJ was a man of his last word. Is Jimmy Carter the worst president the U.S. ever had, or, as William Safire put it, the "best U.S. president the Soviet Union ever had"? Gore Vidal calling Ronald Reagan a "triumph of the embalmer's art" seems itself the triumph of a curdled soul; but even Reagan could laugh when Gerald Ford quipped, "No, Reagan doesn't dye his hair. He's just prematurely orange."

It is one thing for our semiliterate intellectuals to sneer at the current president's locution, and another to remark, as H.L. Mencken did of Warren Harding, that his speech "reminds me of a string of wet sponges . . . It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash." Compare this to Sen. Harry Reid's feeble attempt at scathing wit against President George W. Bush in 2005: "I think this guy is a loser."

Benjamin Franklin Bache, writing in the 1790s, probably our most abusive era, called John Adams a "ruffian deserving of the curses of mankind," which isn't bad. But that's a mere zephyr compared to the storms of James Callender, who called the second president a "hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

The political insult is not insinuation, a whisper campaign, or a planted story. It is direct verbal attack, a public performance before a voting audience. Its purpose is to stain character, which, in the great personality contests that are elections, is a candidate's most precious asset. Nothing does this better than ridicule.

The flamboyant Sen. John Randolph (1773-1833) was an early master. His famed sallies, like good poetry, present unforgettable images: "He is a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt," he said of Secretary of State Edward Livingston. "Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks." "Never was ability so much below mediocrity so well rewarded," he said of one political appointee. "No, not even when Caligula's horse was made consul." Randolph had a flamboyant 20th-century counterpart in Norman Mailer, who is supposed to have said, "Gerald Ford was unknown throughout America. Now he's unknown throughout the world."

We can cheer the fact that these days, newspapers, TV networks, politicians and parties that traffic in scurrility imperil only their own reputations. The spirit of benevolence is upon us: Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, speaking by phone on June 4, agreed nobly to uphold "civil discussion."

But civility has a way of creeping into daintiness. If our candidates lose their willingness to spar, their sense of combative humor, will the contest grow more polite, or just less honest? The well-turned insult is a necessary and salutary force in politics, a spicy seasoning in an old, force-fed dish. It's a check on pomposity, proof of democratic vitality, a relief from endless electioneering, and a show of intelligence and moderation. The dull and the bigoted are rarely witty.

During a campaign, Henry Adams reminded us, the air is full of speeches and vice versa. Nothing deflates like a happy insult.

Mr. Tartakovsky is an associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books.