Insults on the stump

Editorial Notebook

July 24, 2004|By KAREN HOSLER

HEARD FROM a distance, where Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn't yet completely morphed from action hero to political hack, his "girlie men" jibe at California state lawmakers sounded like late-night comedy shtick.

Because that's where it came from. He was parodying a parody of himself from an old Saturday Night Live skit.

It didn't sound so funny, though, to the targets of the governor's ridicule - girls, men and gays all took offense - and was likely a preview of coming attractions during the political season that begins with the Democratic National Convention next week.

Political insults have a long and rich history that doubtless extends as far back as would-be leaders have been in competition. Politicians are rarely content to simply pitch their own virtues but feel compelled to tear down their opponents as well. Alas, they know that even while voters say they hate it, negative campaigning works.

Some insults are deft and clever, slicing so quickly the target barely sees the knife. For example, the formidable British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was described by opposition MP Clement Freud as "Attila the Hen."

Some insults are more clumsy.

Former President Richard M. Nixon once said that Cuban leader Fidel Castro "couldn't even go the bathroom unless the Soviet Union put the nickel in the toilet."

Some are clearly heartfelt. Former President Harry S. Truman went well beyond the much-used charge of "liar" to claim Mr. Nixon was so prone to prevarication "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."

Some broadsides amount to little more than name-calling, as when Union Gen. George B. McClellan branded Abraham Lincoln "a well-meaning baboon." Or, in what was intended to be an even lower blow, when former Sen. Bob Dole, as a presidential candidate in 1996, blasted his opponent with "liberal, liberal, liberal, liberal Bill Clinton."

Often such insults seem to be born of frustration, reducing political discourse to its lowest common denominator.

It was clear, for example, that by the final week of his re-election campaign in 1992, President George H. W. Bush knew his grasp on the White House was slipping away because he turned almost giddy.

He started referring to Democrat Al Gore, the vice presidential nominee on the opposing ticket who was known for his concern about global warming, as "Ozone man," or sometimes just "Ozone."

Together, Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton, seeking what would be his first term as president, were dismissed by the Republican incumbent as "bozos."

But Governor Schwarzenegger's "girlie men" line was an insult with double backspin. It appeared to reflect his impatience with Democratic lawmakers blocking his budget proposal, but was also calculated to stoke his popularity with Republicans by attacking the Sacramento crowd.

Political insults usually have enough basis in fact to make them ring true, as when Texas tycoon Ross Perot called Vice President Dan Quayle "an empty suit that goes to funerals and plays golf."

Occasionally, insults seem to apply so well they take on lives of their own. After the first President Bush campaigned outside a Waffle House in 1992 to charge Mr. Clinton with shifting positions on issues, the comic strip "Doonesbury" depicted Mr. Clinton as a floating waffle dripping with syrup.

The current President Bush is using a similar tactic this year, trying to portray Democrat John Kerry as a "flip-flopper." Mr. Bush may be as successful as his father in making the label stick. But, as with his dad, the insult could outlast his presidency.

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