Hoping for the Worst

There is no more enduring myth of American politics than the recurrent conviction that this election is the meanest, nastiest, most vituperative ever conducted, that once upon a time in a golden age we engaged in civil debate, the discourse of gentleman, the rational evaluation of competing policies, and yet now we rage and rant like witless beasts.

Only the blissful ignorance of our own history obscures a more accurate vision. If anything, our politics are more tame and civil now than ever. There simply are no recent elections to match the heated rhetoric, vile insults and calumny of the contest between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, or either of Abraham Lincoln’s elections.

A Texas politico once declared that “politics is show business for ugly people.” But the truth is more revealing still. There is an art to the well-crafted political insult.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal ”In Praise of Political Insults” earlier this month, the Claremont Review of Books’ Joseph Tartakovsky explained: “The answer is style. Too coarse, and the abuser sounds malicious. Too unimaginative, and the words evaporate en route. Too petty, and the insulter is harmed more than the insultee. Too distant from truth, and it just won’t stick. Bill Moyers’s jibe that ‘hyperbole was to Lyndon Johnson what oxygen is to life’ is an attempt at wit; the real thing is Bill Buckley’s remark that LBJ was a man of his last word. Is Jimmy Carter the worst president the U.S. ever had, or, as William Safire put it, the ‘best U.S. president the Soviet Union ever had’? Gore Vidal calling Ronald Reagan a ‘triumph of the embalmer’s art’ seems itself the triumph of a curdled soul; but even Reagan could laugh when Gerald Ford quipped, ‘No, Reagan doesn’t dye his hair. He’s just prematurely orange.’”

But to return to those earlier days of civility, Tartakovsky recalls that “Benjamin Franklin Bache, writing in the 1790s, probably our most abusive era, called John Adams a ‘ruffian deserving of the curses of mankind,’ which isn’t bad. But that’s a mere zephyr compared to the storms of James Callender, who called the second president a ‘hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.’”

Or consider that “the flamboyant Sen. John Randolph (1773-1833) was an early master. His famed sallies, like good poetry, present unforgettable images: ‘He is a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt,’ he said of Secretary of State Edward Livingston. ‘Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks.’ ‘Never was ability so much below mediocrity so well rewarded,’ he said of one political appointee. ‘No, not even when Caligula’s horse was made consul.’ Randolph had a flamboyant 20th-century counterpart in Norman Mailer, who is supposed to have said, ‘Gerald Ford was unknown throughout America. Now he’s unknown throughout the world.”

Tartakovsky’s point is that “civility has a way of creeping into daintiness. If our candidates lose their willingness to spar, their sense of combative humor, will the contest grow more polite, or just less honest? The well-turned insult is a necessary and salutary force in politics, a spicy seasoning in an old, force-fed dish. It’s a check on pomposity, proof of democratic vitality, a relief from endless electioneering, and a show of intelligence and moderation. The dull and the bigoted are rarely witty.”

As we approach another political season, perhaps we should hope for the worst.

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