Gabriel Gomez recently called Ed Markey “pond scum,” a remark that enlivened an otherwise torpid Senate race but also provoked much tsk-tsk’ing from these who wish their politics more genteel. Oh, please. It’s not as if Gomez was the first to ever crudely tear into an opponent. Just before the election last year, Barack Obama used a barnyard epithet to call Mitt Romney a liar. And remember when former Vice President Dick Cheney told Senator Patrick Leahy to attempt something that most medical professionals would describe as impossible?”
It’s not the insults I mind. What I mind is their lack of imagination. Pond scum? Really, Gabe — is that the best you could do?
Gomez was upset about a Markey ad that appeared to compare him to Osama bin Laden. But a far better comeback would have been to wonder whether Markey “has abandoned good principles, or whether he ever had any.” Perhaps he could have said that Markey “is not possessed of the backbone of an angleworm” or that “he couldn’t see a belt without hitting below it.”
Now those are insults — closer to poetry than prose, witty and to the point. I wish I could claim credit for them but, unfortunately, they’re all lifted from others. The first was Thomas Paine trashing George Washington (yes, not even the father of our country was immune from scorn). The second was Ulysses S. Grant upbraiding James Garfield, and the last was Countess Margot Asquith’s take on British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. And they all illustrate two things. First, folks back then were a lot cleverer. And second, it’s all been said before.
Over 150 years ago, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli denounced Irish agitator Daniel O’Connell, saying, “He has committed every crime that does not require courage.” Of another political opponent, Disraeli said, “He only had one idea and that was wrong.” In 1961 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan uttered words that resonate today: “As usual the Liberals offer a mixture of sound and original ideas. Unfortunately none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound.”
Good lines all.
Americans aren’t above the fray either. Theodore Roosevelt supposedly said William McKinley “has a chocolate éclair backbone.” Here was one political opponent’s take on Dwight Eisenhower: “As an intellectual, he bestowed upon the games of golf and bridge all the enthusiasm and perseverance that he withheld from books and ideas.” And Adlai Stevenson, better known for his wit than his wins, in 1956 described Richard Nixon as, “the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree and then mount the stump to make a speech for conservation.” Harry Truman was also not a Nixon fan: “He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.”
Even some of our most revered political heroes loved to dish dirt. Abraham Lincoln beat up on his debating partner, Stephen Douglas, saying, “His argument is as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.” Lincoln himself was also frequently the target of abuse. Harper’s Magazine, for example, serenaded him with a stream of invective: “Filthy story teller, despot, liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, ignoramus Abe, old scoundrel, perjurer, swindler, tyrant, field-butcher, land-pirate.”
Of course, sometimes the put-downs can backfire. “We did not conceive it possible that (someone) would produce a paper so slipshod, so loose-joined, so puerile . . . in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp.” That was the Chicago Times in its review of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Oops. And more recently, US Representative Jack Kemp of New York trashed a colleague, saying, “When his library burned down, it destroyed both books. (He) hadn’t finished coloring in the second.” The target of his venom was Senator Bob Dole. A few years later, in 1996, Dole asked Kemp to be his running mate. That must have been an odd conversation.
The point is that politics and insults are intertwined. A good line gets notice; it may even make a career. In going after Markey, Gomez was just following in a long, hallowed tradition. He just did a bad job of it.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.