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Political Insults: Cheap Shots or Do They Play an Important Role in American Politics?

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U.S. House Majority Leader Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) had no problem publicly belittling Republican President and friend Gerald R. Ford. He said Ford was "worse than [Warren G.] Harding and [Herbert] Hoover put together." Yet O'Neill and Ford had a friendly personal relationship. They often golfed together. Ford took O'Neill's criticisms in stride, knowing that they were not personal, just politics.

Theodore Roosevelt was brilliant at leveling insults, not only directed at his political adversaries, but often directed at his political allies. In 1889, Roosevelt was appointed to serve on the Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison; however, Roosevelt was less than grateful when Harrison failed to support his ideas for Civil Service Reform. Roosevelt blasted the President, calling him "a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician." Harrison retorted that the young Roosevelt "wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset." In 1898, while serving as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Roosevelt became convinced that President William McKinley was a vacillator. He said of the President, "McKinley had no more backbone than a chocolate eclair." Ironically, in 1900 Roosevelt became McKinley's Vice Presidential Running Mate.

Perhaps Roosevelt's most profound insult was targeted at Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. He called Wilson "a Byzantine logothete backed by flubdubs and mollycoddles." (In Layman's terms, a logothete is an administrator; a flubdud means nonsense; and a mollycoddle means pampered.) Needless to say, Roosevelt's inimical insults are not often heard on the school playground.

In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson endorsed Pat Harrison in the Democratic U.S. Senate Primary race against the incumbent Democrat James K. Vardaman (D-Miss.). Wilson was inflamed that Vardaman had voted against the Congressional Declaration of War with Germany. Vardaman did not take Wilson's endorsement of Harrison lightly. He called Wilson "the coldest blooded, most selfish ruler beneath the stars today." Hurling invective at Wilson proved a bipartisan affair. Just a year later (in 1919), U.S. Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge Sr. (R-Mass.) called Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, who he had feuded with over the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, "the most sinister figure that ever crossed the country's path." After the Treaty failed to garner the requisite two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate, Wilson referred to Lodge and other opponents of the Treaty as "Pygmy minds."

Harry S. Truman minced few words. He once had great admiration for Dwight D. Eisenhower, and even offered not to seek the Democratic Party's nomination for President in 1948 if Eisenhower registered in the Democratic Party and ran for President. Yet when Eisenhower decided to run for President as a Republican in 1952, Truman sang from a different hymnbook. In his down-home Missouri dialect, Truman exclaimed, "The General doesn't know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday." When Vice President Richard M. Nixon sought the Presidency in 1960, former President Truman called Nixon "a no good lying bastard," and told an audience in Texas that anyone who votes for Nixon "ought to go to Hell." The Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy, was asked about these comments and with great political dexterity quipped, "I've asked President Truman to please not bring up the religious issue in this campaign." When Nixon became President, he made a courtesy call to Truman at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence Missouri. Truman and Nixon got along cordially before the cameras.

The campaign trail is a unique place, especially during the Presidential primaries where candidates of the same political party barnstorm the nation, excoriating each other and approving advertisements castigating their opponent(s); however, once the Primary is over, the loser ceases all criticism and hits the hustings, singing the praises of the winner.

For example, in 1992, Democrat Paul Tsongas called his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, "unprincipled" and "a pander bear." He approved an advertisement which asserted, "Some people will say anything to be elected President." Yet when Clinton secured the nomination, Tsongas heaped praise on Clinton, averring, "Bill Clinton is a healer by instinct and that skill will be critical as we come to understand the pulls and tugs of our multi-cultural society." As for Tsongas' earlier statement, he said, "It was a campaign. Campaigns are tough. People make tough statements and I did and others did as well."

In the U.S. House of Representatives, three insults are legendary in their creativeness. The first was in 1899. U.S. House Speaker Thomas Bracket Reed (R-Maine) leveled an insult at his colleagues, observing, "They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge."

The second was in 1942, after former Republican Presidential nominee Wendell Willkie compared the Neutrality Act to giving aid to German Chancellor Adolph Hitler. In response, U.S. Representative Dewey Short (R-Mo.) went to the House Floor to alliteratively brand his fellow Republican "a Bellowing -- Blatant -- Bellicose -- Belligerent -- Blowhard."

The most recent grand insult occurred in 2005, when U.S. Representative Marian Berry (D-Ariz.) referred to his redheaded 30-year-old Republican colleague, U.S. Representative Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), as a "Howdy Doody-looking nimrod" during a debate on the Federal budget. Berry was incensed that Putnam and some Republican colleagues attacked the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, claiming they were not true fiscal conservatives.

The Reverend Jerry Falwell was a vociferous opponent of Sandra Day O'Connor, Ronald Reagan's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Falwell thought her views on social issues were too liberal. He urged, "All Good Christians to oppose the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court." In response to Falwell's statement, U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), a Libertarian-oriented conservative who virulently opposed the views of social conservatives like Falwell, quipped, "All Good Christians should kick Jerry Falwell's ass."

Even family connections do not shield insults in the political sphere. In 1994, Massachusetts State Representative Mark Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., was the Democratic nominee for governor of Massachusetts. He ran against Republican Governor William F. Weld. Governor Weld was married to Susan Roosevelt Weld, a cousin of Mark Roosevelt. This family feud was a nasty slugfest. Despite Weld's commanding lead, Weld ran up the electoral score in part by approving advertisements attacking Roosevelt. Roosevelt, in turn, said of Weld, "He's indifferent, apathetic, feckless, aloof, passive and lazy. Did I say uncaring? He's uncaring." Weld won the race with a record 71 percent of the vote.

It should also be noted that there is a fine line to observe with political insults, and that once that line is crossed, there is often an attendant backlash. For example, political insults can be seen as overly insulting to the point where they can backfire on the insulter. In 1994, Texas Governor Ann Richards, on a campaign stop in Texarkana, Texas, heaped approbation on Debbie Coleman who was the recipient of the city's Teacher of the Year Award. Richards was inflamed that her Republican opponent, George W. Bush, had argued that the achievement scores for students were manipulated because it is an election year. Richards then asserted, "You just work like a dog, do well, the test scores are up, the kids are looking better, the dropout rate is down. And all of a sudden you've got some jerk who's running for public office [George W. Bush] telling everybody it's all a sham and it isn't real and he doesn't give you credit for doing your job. So far as he is concerned, everything in Texas is terrible." Richard's comments backfired and were seen by much of the Texas electorate as petty, malevolent and unnecessary.

The winner of the most creative insult award must go to former U.S. Senator Chuck Robb (D-Va.). In the 1994 Virginia U.S. Senate race, Republican Oliver North, who had been implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Presidential Administration of Ronald Reagan, challenged Robb. Senator Robb brought out the heavy rhetorical artillery, telling an audience in Alexander, VA that his opponent is a "document-shredding, Constitution-trashing, Commander in Chief-bashing, Congress-thrashing, uniform-shaming, Ayatollah-loving, arms-dealing, criminal-protecting, résumé-enhancing, Noriega-coddling, social security-threatening, public school-denigrating, Swiss-banking-law-breaking, letter-faking, self-serving, election-losing, snake-oil salesman who can't tell the difference between the truth and a lie." The next day Robb won the Senate election.

Politics is a funny business, and certainly not a good career choice for the thin-skinned. If you want to play in this game you've got to be prepared for highly insulting remarks not only about the positions you may hold, but about your personal life as well.

Perhaps how a political candidate handles and deals with sharp insults is an important part of the political vetting process.