THE BLOG
09/11/2014 01:32 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Putdowns Can Be a Sharp Weapon During Political Campaigns

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During a television debate against incumbent U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings in 1986, Republican candidate Henry McMaster inexplicably challenged his 64-year-old opponent to take a drug test.

"I'll take a drug test," Hollings snapped, "if you'll take an IQ test."

Hollings won the debate and got the last word in the election, winning easily.

The ability to deliver a sharp wisecrack that leaves a rival red-faced and speechless can be a potent political weapon. A verbal comeback can be both a bludgeon, as Hollings used it, or a shield to fend off an opponent's unwanted advances.

The best practitioners of the comeback have a good ear, a nimble mind, a sharp sense of humor, and good timing. For this reason, such exchanges have always been rare in politics -- or at least medium-rare.

The best ripostes are spontaneous. But spontaneity is a thing of the past in politics, where every blink of a candidate's eye is planned.

As we suffer through another insufferable campaign season of attack ads and mindless chatter, let's remember some of the best political putdowns in U.S. history. If you like these, there are 200 in a book I edited several years ago, I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes.

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During one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas called Abraham Lincoln "two-faced," whereupon Lincoln replied, "I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"

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During another of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas told their conservative audience that he had once seen Lincoln selling whiskey.

When it was his turn to speak, Lincoln made no attempt to dispute the charge. He agreed that he had once worked as a bartender. "I was on one side of the bar serving drinks," he said, "and Douglas was on the other side, drinking them."

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In 1904 Republican presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt was addressing a rally when he was interrupted by a drunk who yelled, "I am a Democrat!" When Roosevelt asked why, the man replied, "Because my grandfather was a Democrat and my father was a Democrat."

Roosevelt patiently nodded and said to the man, "Let me ask you, sir. If your grandfather had been a jackass and your father had been a jackass, what would you be?"

"A Republican!" the drunk shot back.

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A political opponent charged New York Gov. Al Smith with telling lies about him.

"You ought to be glad," Smith replied. "If I told the truth about you, they'd run you out of town."

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When President Ronald Reagan ran for a second term in 1984, he was in his 70s, and critics questioned his vitality for the office. During a television debate between Reagan and his Democratic Party challenger, Walter Mondale, a reporter raised the issue of age to Reagan.

"I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign," Reagan replied. "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

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In 1988 George Herbert Walker Bush selected little-known U.S. Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate. The youthful Quayle constantly tried to deflect concerns about his age and inexperience by comparing his experience to John F. Kennedy's. Quayle's handlers told him not to bring up the comparison during his debate with the Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, but Quayle ignored the advice. When the issue was raised during the debate, Quayle answered, "I have as much experience ... as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."

Bentsen was ready: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mind. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

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During the 2008 Democratic primaries U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was debating U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and the presumptive favorite for the party's presidential nomination. At one point Obama was asked how he would create a significantly different foreign policy, given that several of his advisers once worked for President Bill Clinton.

"I want to hear that," Hillary Clinton interrupted, provoking laughter.

Obama paused for a moment and then replied: "Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well."