A tedious but apparently inescapable trope in our discourse harks back to a golden age when standards were higher and people behaved better. It hovers in the background as pundits deplore and bemoan the incivility of the current political landscape.
But politics has always been ugly and uncivil, since the very first days of the Republic, for which Edwin L. Battistella supplies abundant evidence in Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President from Washington to Trump (Oxford University Press, 232 pages, $14.95).
One of the distinctive features of U.S. democracy is our freedom and tendency “to openly insult the president,” Professor Battistella says. In a political context, an insult may look like criticism, but it goes beyond criticism with a further intent to wound and diminish, to gain a rhetorical and social dominance.
Surveying the vast record of presidential insults, he identifies recurring themes: “too little intellect or too much, inconsistency or obstinacy, worthlessness, weakness, dishonesty, personality flaws, sexual impropriety, and appearance. The semantic categories called out in insults suggest what is harmful culturally, and insults reveal society’s changing prejudices and enduring ones as well.”
Rhetorical fashions shift over time. The nineteenth-century fondness for “pusillanimous,” “poltroon,” and “imbecile” has faded. We make do today with “wimp,” “jerk,” and “moron.” But the themes are constant.
But you didn’t come here for academic taxonomy. You came here for the insults, and I am providing a generous sampling from Professor Battistella’s compilation.
Political parties (which the Founders feared as “factions”) and disagreements developed almost immediately. George Washington was privately called “Old Muttonhead” by his vice president, John Adams.
Adams, who was stout, was called “His Rotundity.”
James Madison: “a withered apple John.”
James Monroe: “He hasn’t got enough brains to hold his hat on.”
Andrew Jackson: “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar.” (John Quincy Adams)
Franklin Pierce, who was much given to drink: “the hero of many a well-fought bottle.”
James Buchanan: “a bloated mass of political putridity,” “an old dotard, an imbecile, a miserable gabbling old granny.”
Abraham Lincoln: “the original gorilla.”
Ulysses Grant: “Useless Grant,” “a man who has not an idea above a horse and a cigar.”
James A. Garfield: “His character is as dubious as his talents are unquestioned.”
Grover Cleveland, who fathered a child out of wedlock: “a coarse debauchee,” “an artful seducer.”
Benjamin Harrison: “a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.” (Theodore Roosevelt)
William McKinley: “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair,” “kept his ear so close to the ground it was full of grasshoppers.”
Theodore Roosevelt: “that damned cowboy.” Henry James called him “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding Noise.”
William Howard Taft: “He no doubt means well, but he means well feebly.” (TR again)
Woodrow Wilson: “a human icicle.”
Warren G. Harding: “a human smudge.”
Herbert Hoover: “that spineless cactus at the head of government,”
Franklin D. Roosevelt: “a chameleon on plaid.” (Herbert Hoover)
Harry S. Truman: “a vulgar little Babbitt.”
Dwight Eisenhower: “a dime-store New Dealer.” (Barry Goldwater)
John F. Kennedy: a “little scrawny fellow with rickets.” (Lyndon Johnson)
Lyndon Johnson: “a real centaur—part man, part horse’s ass.” (Dean Acheson)
Gerald Ford: “a nice guy who played too much football with his helmet off.” (LBJ)
Jimmy Carter: “a waste of skin.”
George H.W. Bush: “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” (Ann Richards)
We return you now to our regularly scheduled donnybrook.