Death of the Artful Zinger

Washington Matters

Death of the Artful Zinger

If you're thinking the exchanges between candidates in this presidential campaign season are reaching new lows of bitterness and negativity, a look into the nation's past shows that ruthlessness and politicking are hardly new ...

The comparison of today's political dialogue and verbal dust-ups to yesteryear's is sharp -- and contradicts the perception that nastiness is in any way new. The insult of choice these days is to call an opponent "elitist" or a "flip-flopper" or "liberal tax-and-spender" or a "cookie-cutter conservative." In bygone campaigns, there were far more colorful verbal assaults launched under cover as artful zingers.

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I was recently reading "The Fine Art of Political Wit" by Leon A. Harris, which was published in 1964. It's a collection of colorful and clever ripostes from days before campaigns were overrun by pollsters, political advisers. video sound bites and what amounts to political sparring on cable and talk radio. Harris took most examples from open public debate or speeches, not from memoirs written at the safe distance time provides.

Here are just a few:


Sam Houston on Jefferson Davis: "Yes, I know Mr. Davis, he is as ambitious as Lucifer, cold as a snake and what he touches will not prosper."

John Quincy Adams on Daniel Webster: "I am aware of his gigantic intellect, his envious temper, his ravenous ambition and his rotten heart."

Houston on Thomas Jefferson Green: "He has all the characteristics of a dog -- except loyalty."

Abraham Lincoln on Stephen Douglas' vision for the country. "It is as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death."


Sen. John Randolf on President John Quincy Adams: "His face is ashen; gaunt his whole body. His breath is green with gall; his tongue drips poison."

British MP John Wilkes replying to the prediction by the Earl of Sandwich that he would die on the gallows or of venereal disease: "That depends my lord, whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."

Franklin Roosevelt on Republican attempts to blame Democrats for depression: "You never speak of rope in the house of a man who has been hanged. In the same way, if I were a Republican leader speaking to a mixed audience, the last word in the dictionary I would use is that word 'depression.' " 

John F. Kennedy deflecting suggestions of vote tampering. "I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy -- 'Dear Jack' -- Don't buy a single vote more than necessary. I'll be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide."


And two lesser known rhetorical gems from Winston Churchill, who has a large chapter devoted to him:

On Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain: "Mr. Chamberlain loves the working man, he loves to see him work."

On Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Party leader being named to the top British financial post. "I remember, when I was a child, being taken to the Barnum Circus, which contained an exhibition on freaks and monstrosities. But the one exhibit I most wanted to see on the program was the one described as "The Boneless Wonder." But my parents judged it would be too revolting and demoralizing for my youthful eyes, and I have waited 50 years now to finally see the Boneless Wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench."

Just imagine if some of these early politicians had had the capability to air 15-second TV attack spots. They'd no doubt be more vitriolic and jaw-dropping than today's fare, perhaps more interesting too.