Huey Long, the one-time Governor and Senator from Louisiana, was one of the great and colorful demagogues in American political history. Huey rarely said anything that wasn’t over the top, critical of Washington politicians of both parties, politically incorrect even in the 1930’s, and often very funny. A typical Long performance – unlike so much of today’s political rhetoric – came in the form of a folksy, witty story that made a larger political point.
One of my Long favorites: “The Democratic Party and the Republican Party were just like the old patent medicine drummer that used to come around our country,” Long once said. “He had two bottles of medicine.
“He’d play a banjo and he’d sell two bottles of medicine. One of those bottles of medicine was called High Popalorum and another one of those bottles of medicine was called Low Popahirum.
“Finally somebody around there said is there any difference in these bottles of medicines? ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘considerable. They’re both good but they’re different,’ he said.
“‘That High Popalorum is made from the bark off the tree that we take from the top down. And that Low Popahirum is made from the bark that we take from the root up.’
“And the only difference that I have found between the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership was that one of ’em was skinning you from the ankle up and the other from the ear down — when I got to Congress.”
Other great political phrase makers, Winston Churchill for instance, have the ability to slice with humor. Churchill once said of political rival and Labour Party Prime Minister Ramsey Macdonald that he “has the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thoughts.” Great line.
Or how about Ronald Reagan’s mix of humor and politics, including this searing putdown of his opponent in the 1980 presidential campaign. “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his,” Reagan said.
Such use of clever and clear political language has all but disappeared from our political discourse as members of both modern political parties become guilty of outrageous, uninspired and borderline crazy political speech hardly any of which is as funny or as precise as Long, Churchill or Reagan. Consider some recent examples.
The Washington Establishment Response:
Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president, has launched a Republican primary challenge against incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Not surprisingly, many of Enzi’s colleagues – Arizona’s John McCain, included – have endorsed his re-election. What does Liz Cheney do? She falls back, of course, on the lame, tired and limp response of, no doubt, a political consultant. “Liberal Republican Senators like John McCain…have endorsed my opponent.” Liberal Republicans? Like John “I ran against Obama in 2008” McCain?
“The Washington Establishment is doing all it can to try to stop us,” the unimaginative Ms. Cheney says. “Even with the mess in Washington today, the Establishment is fighting hard to protect incumbents. You and I know that protecting incumbents won’t protect our freedom.”
The challenger is guilty of a political attack that fails to pass the smell test and, even worse, of being boring. If you can’t do better than that maybe you should stay in Casper.
The Invoke The Bible Response:
The always reliably kookie Rep. Michele Bachmann said recently that President Obama’s decision to provide arms to certain of the Syrian rebels was proof of, well let her explain.
“This happened, and as of today, the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists,” Bachmann said on a Christian radio show, “Now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end time history.”
The end times? The end times of her term in Congress maybe.
Invoke the Nazis:
A state representative in Arizona, Brenda Barton of Payson, took to Facebook during the recent government shutdown to complain about National Park closures and in the process, you guessed it, she made the Nazi comparison.
“Someone is paying the National Park Service thugs overtime for their efforts to carry out the order of De Fuhrer… where are our Constitutional Sheriffs who can revoke the Park Service Rangers authority to arrest??? Do we have any Sheriffs with a pair?” she wrote.
When called on whether the Nazi angle to the government shutdown was really appropriate Rep. Barton doubled down. “You better read your history,” she said. “Germany started with national health care and gun control before any of that other stuff happened. And Hitler was elected by a majority of people.”
Actually, reading the real history, tells us that the German social welfare system began to come together under Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck in the 1870’s and evolved over time, much as Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act have in the United States.
As the National Institutes of Health says about German health care: “Rather than being solely a lesson about leftist politics and the power of trade unions, health care in Germany is above all a story of conservative forces in society. These forces include public and private employers, churches, and faith-based and secular social welfare organizations. They remain committed to the preservation of equitable access to quality medical services, and they form crucial pillars for the delivery of medical services and nursing care.” It is less complicated, I know, to just make up “your history” and blame the Nazis.
The Texas flaming meteorite Sen. Ted Cruz had his own “invoke the Nazis” moment recently when he said failing to defund Obamacare was analogous to “appeasement” of Hitler’s Germany in “the 1940’s.”
“If you go to the 1940s, Nazi Germany,” Cruz said. “Look, we saw in Britain, Neville Chamberlain, who told the British people, ‘Accept the Nazis. Yes, they’ll dominate the continent of Europe but that’s not our problem. Let’s appease them. Why? Because it can’t be done. We can’t possibly stand against them.'”
Ted, Ted. First, the lessons of Munich are still much debated by thoughtful people, including imminent historians, who continue to sift through the nuances of whether Hitler and the Nazis might have been stopped short of world war. And, for what it’s worth, the Yale education senator got his decade wrong. Britain was at war with Germany in September 1939. But here’s the real point – the “appeaser” label is one of the cheapest and sleaziest charges any politician can level at another, as that “liberal” John McCain made clear to the boy senator from Texas.
As a general rule you know a politician is standing on swampy ground when he invokes, in relation to a contemporary issue, the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. There are many lessons for America today from the period immediately before World War II and one important lesson is don’t make sweeping generalizations about someone’s patriotism based on a charge of “appeasement.”
The Ripped from the Pages of History Approach:
Here is another old, old chestnut of political rhetoric. Take a chapter of American history, typically completely out of context, and use that example to support a highly controversial position of the moment.
Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Virginia Republican, employed this bit of rhetorical malpractice recently when he argued that it would be OK to shut down the government and even default on the nation’s debts, because the Founders – its always the Founders – did damage to the economy to save it in 1776.
“I will remind you that this group of renegades that decided that they wanted to break from the crown in 1776 did great damage to the economy of the colonies,” Griffith said. “They created the greatest nation and the best form of government, but they did damage to the economy in the short run.”
Actually, Mr. Griffith, those “renegades” launched a revolution against the British crown with many of them – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, for example – putting their personal fortunes and freedom at risk. The damage done was really to the British economy, but never mind.
And then there is Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, who had his campaign send out a solicitation that compared the Tea Party faction of the GOP to the Ku Klux Klan, complete with burning cross symbolism.
“[T]here is overwhelming evidence that the Tea Party is the home of bigotry and discrimination in America today, just as the KKK was for an earlier generation,” Grayson said. “If the shoe fits, wear it.” Actually, that shoe pinches. In its hay day the KKK was more than a political force, it mounted a reign of terror – lynchings, murders, beatings and more – primarily against blacks, but also against other minorities. Invoking the Klan to characterize your opponents on the right today is just as offensive as invoking the Nazi to smear your opponents on the left or, in Sen. Cruz’s case, smear members of your own party.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Political discourse over important and controversial issues is cheapened and weakened when public official lack the imagination or historical grounding to make an argument on the merits or, at least, an argument that enlightens with a smile.
It is asking entirely too much, I know, for today’s political class to have anything approaching the class of a career politician like Winston Churchill, but perhaps they could make an effort to use the language as well as he did. After he became British Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill formed a unity government that included Labour Party leader Clement Atlee, a long-time political opponent, as deputy prime minister. The two men were hardly friends, but did win a war together and maintained a grudging respect for each other; the type of wary respect of one ambitious man keeping a close eye on another ambitious man. Churchill could still cut his opponents down to size with a sharp one liner.
Churchill once referred to Atlee as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” and on another occasion as “a modest man, who has much to be modest about.” One of Winston’s best lines reflected in one sentence just what he thought of Atlee’s ability and intellect. “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street,” Churchill said, “and when the door was opened, Atlee got out.” Brilliant. How do you respond to that?
I love politics. I just want to listen to better debate from people smart enough to make better arguments. In other words, a bit more High Popalorum.