Monday, 26 September 2011

Best political insults

Vince Cable

My posting this week is inspired by hearing Vince Cable at the Lib Dem conference describe some of his Tory partners as "ideological descendants of those who sent children up chimneys". It got me thinking about the language of political insults, and I thought I would offer up some of the more imaginative I have come across.

The funny ones are great of course, and I've included some below, but I particularly like those that cleverly and succinctly create a powerful or telling image, as Cable's does. There is no better example than this from the end of the eighteenth century when William Cobbett described the American statesman Benjamin Franklin as:

"a crafty and lecherous old hypocrite whose very statue seems to gloat on the wenches as they walk the States House yard."

It drips with the kind of malice that typified eighteenth century slanging matches while rising above the pit through Cobbett's vivifying metaphor. Later examples rarely exhibit so much hatred, though one exception is Margot Asquith, the writer and wife of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who was as sharp-tongued as the critic Dorothy Parker with an extra lick of cruelty.

Margot Asquith
 Here's her verdict on two British Prime Ministers, first David Lloyd George:

"He couldn't see a belt without hitting below it."

And Winston Churchill, who goaded her to a higher (or lower) scale of vituperation:

"He would kill his own mother just so that he could use her skin to make a drum to beat his own praises."

Some of Churchill's own memorable insults below, but here's another British Prime Minister, this time from the Victorian age, whose brevity sharpened his wit. Benjamin Disraeli said of the Irish politican and agitator Daniel O'Connell:

"He has committed every crime that does not require courage."

As a part-time novelist, Disraeli used metaphor more strikingly than many of his fellow politicians. Here he is on Sir Robert Peel:

"His smile is like the silver fittings on a coffin."

Some of the best political insults touch wittily upon the perceived limitations of their subjects, with ignorance or lack of ideas being a common theme. Mark Twain tarred all American politicians with this brush when he wrote:

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot; and suppose you were a member of Congress: but I repeat myself."

This is American writer Emmet Hughes on the US President 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."

Lyndon Johnson said of Gerald Ford (who inherited the US Presidency from a disgraced Richard Nixon as US President, but as a young man nearly joined the Green Bay Packers):

"He's a nice guy, but he played too much football with his helmet off."

Gerald Ford

Former Hollywood star President Ronald Reagan was often the butt of jokes about his intellect and application, of which the best might be this by New Zealand politican Jonathan Hunt:

"In a disastrous fire in Reagan's library, both books were destroyed. And the real tragedy is that he hadn't finished colouring one."

Reagan (described by Gore Vidal as "a triumph of the embalmer's art" long before he died) was well-known for enjoying his naps, but one of his predecessors, Calvin Coolidge, seems to have been king of the slumberers, according to H L Mencken:

"He slept more than any other president, whether by day or night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored."

When the satirist Dorothy Parker heard of Coolidge's death she reportedly asked: "How can they tell?"

In British politics, Norman St John Stevas (Lord St John of Fawsley) was consistently acerbic about his party leader Margaret Thatcher. He said of her mental processes:

"When she speaks without thinking, she says what she thinks."

Mrs Thatcher's Spitting Image
St John Stevas was responsible for a couple of Mrs Thatcher's many nicknames. He called her She Who Must Be Obeyed and Tina (for her oft-used There is no alternative), but perhaps the best of Thatcher's monickers was coined by Labour's Denis Healey who described her as Attila the Hen. Cruel, but not so personally offensive as General McCellan's dismissal of President Abraham Lincoln as "Nothing more than a well-meaning baboon."

Brief fame and ineffectiveness are also common themes among the quotable insulters. My favourite, for its quick and vivid metaphor, is Thomas Paine's summary of the career of Edmund Burke:

"As he rose like a rocket, he fell like a stick."

I have left the best trader of political insults until last (I say 'trader' because he received almost as many as he issued, though rarely were the returns so worthwhile.) Winston Churchill could pour scorn on rivals and colleagues alike with a few withering words:

"A sheep in sheep's clothing" (on Clement Attlee)

"A modest man with much to be modest about." (ditto)

"He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened." (on Stanley Baldwin)

"Harold Wilson is going around the country, stirring up apathy."

Sir Winston Churchill

Churchill's finest moment (insult-wise, that is) was surely the day when he was sitting on the toilet at the House of Commons. A parliamentary official came rushing in to tell the Prime Minister that the Lord Privy Seal wanted to see him urgently. Churchill replied from the other side of the locked door:

"Tell the Lord Privy Seal I am sealed in my privy, and can only deal with one shit at a time." 


  1. I think it's a lost art, frankly. Politicians these days don't seem to know how to be witty, and/or are afraid of being considered uncivil.

    But I love your examples! The quote by Disraeli may be my favorite.

  2. Mmm, certainly disappearing fast, Beth, if not lost entirely, steadily being replaced by the 'sound bite' which is more pitch than pitch-perfect.

  3. Rafe, a fellow member of a writing site I subscribe to, provided me with two fantastic addtions, which I've reproduced below. Thanks, Rafe.

    A member of Parliament said to Disraeli: "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease."

    "That depends, Sir," said Disraeli, "whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

    And then there was this exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill:

    Shaw: " I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend.... if you have one."

    Churchill:. "Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is one."