HIGHTOWER: The Lost Art of Political Insult

Media pundits are clucking their tongues over the negative tone of this year's presidential candidates, noting the rhetorical dust-ups between George W. Bush, John McCain, and Al Gore. But, hey, these guys are wimps in the political name-calling game!

Yes, Bush and Gore are nasty, but they tend to be whiners rather than vipers, and neither one is the least bit creative. If you want someone to snap your political garters; try this verbal retort that Sam Houston gave when his opponent dared criticize him in an 1842 Texas campaign: "You prate about the faults of other men, while the blot of foul unmitigated treason rests upon you, you political wrangler and canting hypocrite whom the waters of Jordan could never cleanse from your political and moral leprosy." Now there's a real Texan . . . not the pale shadow of one offered by George W. "Shrub" Bush!

Or, try the genteel put down that Abraham Lincoln gave to an opponent: "He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know." Don't you wish we had even one candidate who had such a way with words? Let's spin back to old England, when Disraeli and Gladstone were bitter political enemies. Asked to distinguish between a misfortune and a calamity, Disraeli said: "If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, and if someone pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity."

Without claiming to be in the same league with these guys, I've enjoyed my own fun chances to lash opponents rhetorically. When a Republican governor of Texas let it be known that he was studying Spanish so he could communicate with Mexican-American voters, I said, "Oh good, now he'll be bi-ignorant."

This is Jim Hightower saying . . . To improve the quality of insult, a group has compiled a mix-and-match set of choice words from Shakespeare, the master of insult. Among the possibilities are "a swag-bellied malt-worm," and "a mewling clay-brained maggot-pie." Now I'd look forward to that kind of debate.

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