SOU linguistics professor writes a book about the history of presidential insults
Insulting the president goes back to day one of our democracy, when former subjects of a king suddenly — and joyously — could paint the most powerful man in the land as lazy, a moronic fathead, a flip-flopper, lap dog or a crooked hyena, and no one would come to arrest them.
In his new book, “Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels,” Southern Oregon University professor Edwin Battistella details the vicious, scurrilous and often laughable ways American political operatives have used name-calling to provoke and besmirch foes in the top job.
Before the internet — and especially Twitter — name-calling was the reserve of respected and thoughtful pundits and high-level operatives of parties. But, says Battistella, with the explosion of the digital web 25 years ago, anyone could and did vilify politicians with epithets, some of which would become instantly viral, such as “Slick Willy” for Bill Clinton or “wimp” for George H.W. Bush.
Epithets are often infused with attacks on sexuality, intelligence and honesty — and pull in comparisons with animals such as snakes, baboons and small dogs, Battistella notes. They are bullies, clowns, racists, despots, drunkards and cowards — and any president had best be ready to hear them daily and be able to brush them off.
Perhaps the worst insults come from a president’s peers, using unembroidered language, which can’t be debated, such as when Harry Truman called Richard Nixon “a no-good lying bastard.”
Similarly, pundit and presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan summed up a range of Clinton’s flaws (as seen by the right) as “a draft-dodging, pro-gay greenhorn, married to a radical feminist.”
Battistella, a linguistics professor, says he was inspired to write the book when he and his editor were marveling at the Twitter-driven landslide of invective in the 2016 presidential election.
The history of name-calling was not well documented, so Battistella had to comb through scads of archaic stories on newspapers.com and review much modern history, especially since 1980 when the game, he says, turned much nastier.
“Back in John Kennedy’s day,” says Battistella, “you could stick a knife in a guy and do it while smiling.”
Insults were more genteel and intellectualized, such as when, responding to Nixon calling him an “economic ignoramus,” Kennedy slyly noted, “I confine myself to calling him a Republican, and he said that is getting pretty low.”
In the campaign, Kennedy was dismissed by Dwight Eisenhower with the almost affection terms: “little blue boy” and “that young whippersnapper.”
His favorite, says Battistella, was a disdainful word, almost a non-insult, when legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow called Warren G. Harding, “a human smudge.”
Says Battistella, “It was elegant and dismissive at the same time.”
Another chart-topper, he says, was gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, summing up Nixon as “a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president.” The deft slander, he adds, “differentiated the person from the performance, doubling up the invective and doubling down on the insult.”
Andrew Jackson started the still-thriving tradition of being “a man of the people” running against “effete (or elite) intellectuals” of the Northeast, as typified by John Quincy Adams. This class contrast is fertile ground for insults.
Comparisons are helpful to the mud-slinging game, as when Congressman Davy Crockett called Martin Van Buren, “secret, sly, selfish, cold, calculating, distrustful, treacherous and as different from Jackson as dung from diamonds.” It is not hard to imagine that sentence as a gold mine for Tweets in every election since.
Anyone can offer insults now, but back in the early 20th century, “they were crafted by professional observers, like H.L. Mencken, who had their own following. People took what they said very seriously and they spent a long time crafting words that were very literary and erudite.
“They would use the word ‘mountebank.’ No one knows what that means now. It’s a charlatan. Teddy Roosevelt was called a ‘thimble rigger.’ I had to look that one up. It means a con man, someone who plays the shell game.”
You might think George Washington was “first in the hearts of his countrymen,” but as Battistella points out, no president is exempt. Noted founder Thomas Paine wrote a book slashing him as pusillanimous, treacherous, an ingrate, fraud and chameleon.
It helps to be thick-skinned at the top. Lincoln, who was lashed by both North and South, didn’t seem offended but, of course, he was too busy running the Civil War to notice that much, says Battistella. Andrew Johnson said his critics should hang. The elder Bush took insults well. Thin-skinned, he adds, were Nixon, Clinton and Donald Trump, “who doesn’t pass on any bait.”
Battistella was the author, in 2014, of “Sorry About That: the Language of Public Apology.” His new book is on Amazon for $14.95.