In Memoriam: The Art of Insult

Wherefore stinging wit? The spontaneous, searing slam?

After observing these last elections (American and Canadian), I fear that the art of insult may have died with the masters.

Have all talking heads lost their nerve? Is everyone reading from a script? Are all public figures slaves to their PR people? In this inarticulate age, and compared to past politicians, today’s guys are egregiously limp.

If you recall, the best insult summoned by Al Gore was “snippy”. Dubya responded with “sore loser”.

Uh, ouch?

In Canada, Joe Clark likened Stockwell Day to a game show host, and Jean Chretien said that Day’s party represents the dark side of human nature.

Oooh. The blisters.

What about the crushing quip? Such as this, from Pierre Elliot Trudeau: “The Honourable Member disagrees; I can hear him shaking his head.”

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Or, from Winston Churchill, “You are a modest man, with much to be modest about.”

Benjamin Disraeli was a talent. He once turned to an MP and noted: “Your smile is like the fittings on a coffin.” When asked to explain the difference between calamity and misfortune, he replied: “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. If someone pulled him out, it would be a calamity.”

My favourite nasty political exchange was between the Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes.

Sandwich: “I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox.”

Wilkes: “That depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”

Schwing!

Mark Twain was good at skewering politicians: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

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Oliver Wendell Holmes: “He may have genius. The contrary is, of course, probable.”

Harold Ickes noted: “Dewey has thrown his diaper into the ring.”

From John Sparrow: “If he’d wash his neck, I’d wring it.”

Bernard Shaw once sent a note to Churchill, inviting him to the opening of his play. At the bottom, he wrote: “Bring a friend. If you have one.”

Churchill wrote in reply, saying that he couldn’t make the opening, and then added: “But we’d like to attend the second performance. If there is one.”

This brings me to Dubya. Who has the same presidential qualifications as my poodle. Neither one can read and both like to run outside. The difference is that my poodle is capable of producing original thought. While Dubya bends over for all oilmen, chemical companies, religious nuts, ‘lectric-char-luvin rednecks and Republican rustlers, my poodle does not always do as he’s told. And my poodle has better manners.

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As I write this, we still don’t know who will be the next US president, but the smell of a Bush placement grows stronger. In a way, it’s a good thing. A Dubya administration, disastrous as it will undoubtedly be, will provide more grist for the comedy mill than five Quayle terms could ever have.

The fact that Dubya is where he is in the first place brings me to this remark, belatedly directed at another George by the novelist Edmund Clerihew Bentley:

“George the Third

Ought never to have occurred

One can only wonder

At so grotesque a blunder.”

Blitz Magazine, January 2001

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