Who's the Yahoo?

June 01, 1993

Texas Gov. Ann Richards won plaudits for her Democratic National Convention speech deriding George Bush as the president with a silver foot in his mouth. So why did even some Republicans squirm uncomfortably when Maryland's Republican Party chairman Joyce Lyons Terhes called President Clinton "a philandering, lying, draft dodger" at the recent state party spring convention in Ocean City?

Because Governor Richards' remarks were funny and within the bounds of acceptable political assault. Ms. Terhes crossed the line into mud-slinging and personal vilification. President Clinton's political woes, his Hollywood haircut and his waffling on campaign promises are all fair game in political rhetoric. And so, up to a point, is the role First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton plays in this administration.

But the sheer invective of Ms. Terhes' verbal assault on the president in an evident attempt to whip up partisan energies among Maryland Republicans was gutter politics. The term "yahoo" she applied to the president has a particularly ugly ring to our ears. It smacks of the sort of regional slur that was once common in U.S. politics but hasn't been for several generations.

The noted Republican lexicographer William Safire says the term applies in modern U.S. politics "almost exclusively to anti-intellectual right wingers." A couple of compendia of American slang in our library translate the pejorative term as referring to "bestial or brutish" or "uncouth or uncivilized" people, as in Swift's "Gulliver's Travels." Mr. Clinton has his faults, but those epithets don't describe them.

And since Mrs. Clinton has chosen to play a full role in her husband's administration, she too is fair game for political barbs. But not the sort of vulgarity Ms. Terhes displayed by likening her to a streetwalker, even in what passed for a joke.

As we have noted here and on our opinion pages, Maryland Republicans have an opportunity next year to capitalize on their party's growth in registration figures and on the skidding popularity of some major Democratic office-holders, in Annapolis and in Washington. Candidates with state-wide stature and solid records of local achievement are preparing races.

But the best of candidates can't appeal to an electorate that is still overwhelmingly Democratic under a party banner that is besmirched with below-the-belt hyperbole. The Republican conference was supposed to help sort out the party's strongest contenders for next year's state elections. Ms. Terhes didn't help the process by splattering mud all over the place.

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