Political Grandiloquence

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump shows off the size of his hands as Fox News Channel moderators Brett Baier (L) and Megyn Kelly (R) look on at the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Political campaign rhetoric has descended to a new depth with the 2016 presidential race. Or has it?

The election of 1800 pitted the sitting president, John Adams against antijeffersonhis vice-president, Thomas Jefferson. Supporters of Adams called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father,” and warned that electing him would result in a nation where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.”

antiadamsNot to be outdone, Jefferson hired James Callendar, who produced pamphlets attacking Adams as a hermaphrodite with “neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.

Jefferson won the election. In the years to come, he and Adams became friends again, exchanging regular correspondence until their deaths, on the same day, July 4, 1826.

Callendar? He served time in jail for his slander of Adams. When he was released in 1801, he felt Jefferson owed him. The following year, he published a story confirming what had been rumor: Jefferson had engaged in an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, had lived with her in France and had sired her children. DNA testing has confirmed the link between the families descended from Jefferson and Hemings.

Invective aimed at our leaders has been a constant throughout our history. A few examples:

  • Thomas Paine to George Washington – “… a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?”
  • Harper’s Weekly magazine writing about Abraham Lincoln – “Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Field-Butcher, Land-Pirate.”
  • Writer Dorothy Parker on the news that President Calvin Coolidge had died – “How can they tell?”
  • Harry S. Truman on Richard Nixon – “… a no-good lying bastard. 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.”

Critics of Barack Obama regularly condemn his time spent on the golf course. Nothing new here, either. The writer Emmet Hughes said that 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.”

Passage of time can change our assessment. What was once deemed trash is now revered. The Chicago Times had this to say about President Lincoln’s remarks at the Gettysburg battlefield: “We did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln would produce a paper so slipshod, so loose-joined, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp. He has outdone himself.”

The British are rarely hesitant to take note of someone’s rhetorical shortcomings, but they have a tendency to do it more obliquely. F.E. Smith critiqued Winston Churchill thusly: “Winston has devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches.” Labour-Party leader Aneurin Bevan evaluated Neville Chamberlain’s rhetorical skill with the words, “Listening to a speech by Chamberlain is like paying a visit to Woolworth’s; everything in its place and nothing above sixpence.

Maybe it was the times, but Abraham Lincoln was on the receiving end of endless vituperation during his presidency. There was nothing elegant – nor literate – about this letter from a U.S. citizen to Mr. Lincoln. (It could well be in a comments section of almost any blog on the Internet today.): “God damn your god damned old hellfired god damned soul to hell god damn you and god damn your god damned family’s god damned hellfired god damned soul to hell and good damnation god damn them and god damn your god damned friends to hell.”

The English do seem, to have a better command of language’s subtleties. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had this to say about his rival P.M.: “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, and if anybody pulled him out that, I suppose, would be a calamity.”

The prize for being eloquently dismissive while eviscerating a political opponent belongs to David Lloyd George, who belittled his adversary David Balfour with the words, “His impact on history would be no more than the whiff of scent on a lady’s handkerchief.”

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