I’ve spent a good part of my life in politics accumulating a collection of one-liners and memorable stories uttered by politicians. My collection isn’t built on just any old one-liner or story, of course, but rather the type of memorable phrase that escape the lips and immediately begins haunting the speaker. You know the kind.
Remember Bill Clinton’s infamous line when questioned about his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky – “It depends on what the definition of the word ‘is’ is.” That line will be in Bubba’s obit – guaranteed.
Back in 1929, the U.S. Senate was debating a trade bill (history does repeat) and a feisty, outspoken senator from New Hampshire uttered one of the great lines in American political history. Republican George Moses, a spokesman for eastern business interests and the Senate president pro tem, had become increasingly upset with the western “progressives” in both political parties who consistently opposed conservative economic policy, including what became the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff legislation. In a speech to a group of manufacturing executives Moses, who was known for his quick wit, thought he was getting off a funny line at the expense of the progressives when he said, “the sons of the wild jackass now control the Senate.”
Progressive Republicans like Idaho’s William Borah and Nebraska’s George Norris didn’t get the humor and with Moses presiding in the Senate and therefore unable to respond, they slashed away at the conservative Republican. Moses was accused of insulting certain senator’s mothers. He was blasted as a shill for big business. One wag nicknamed the senator “Mule-skinner Moses.” Moses lost re-election in 1932 in no small part because of his “jackass” line. A popular political book in the early 1930’s took its title from Moses’ effort at a put down of the progressives and it is still a fun read.
Borah isn’t much remembered any more, but the Idaho senator had a sense of humor. Calvin Coolidge once invited him to the White House to gauge whether Borah might accept nomination as vice president. Coolidge reportedly asked Borah if he were interested in a spot on the Republican ticket. “Which spot, Mr. President,” Borah replied. He stayed in the Senate.
Not all one-liners are disasters by any means. Some of the best lines are those that employ self-deprecating humor. Ronald Reagan mastered the difficult political art of using the one-liner to poke fun at himself and in the process defuse some of his own vulnerabilities. Reagan once quipped that he’d left strict orders to be rousted from sleep if there was ever any international crisis, “even if its during a Cabinet meeting.” Priceless line.
John Nance Garner, a crusty Texan who served as speaker of the house and was vice president during Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms, is mostly remembered for comparing the vice presidency to “a warm bucket of spit.” The word Cactus Jack actually used was not “spit,” but something even less attractive – piss.
Garner’s earthy comment about the vice presidency, probably first made in the 1930’s, has now entered political lore, but apparently the line was rarely quoted prior to Garner’s death in the 1960’s. The “warm” whatever was considered a little too colorful until more recent times.
Speaking of which, Lyndon Johnson famously said it was impossible for him to fire FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and that he would keep Hoover “inside the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in.” LBJ, who disparaged nearly everyone, reportedly said of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, that “All that Hubert needs over there is a gal to answer the phone and a pencil with an eraser on it.”
Bob Dole, another great political wit, said as he gazed on presidents Carter, Ford and Nixon standing together at a White House event: “There they are. See no evil, hear no evil, and…evil.”
John McCain a while back called fellow Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul “wacko birds,” a not bad variation on “a wild jackass.” Still I wish McCain would have channeled George Moses and at least called the insufferable Cruz “a son of a wacko bird.”
Dick Cheney get mad at Senator Patrick Leahy some years ago and dropped the “f-bomb” on the Vermont Democrat – on the Senate floor not less – telling Leahy he “could go f-himself.” Leahy responded by saying Cheney was “having a bad day” and the senator added he was shocked – shocked – that such language was used in the Senate. First time Leahy heard that term, I guess. A Cheney spokesman said the two pols had “a frank exchange of views,” which is political speak for they hate each.
Huey Long, the one-time governor and senator from Louisiana, displayed contempt for both national political parties in the early 1930’s. Long once said the Republicans and Democrats reminded him of the old patent medicine seller who had two different bottles of elixir for sale. Each medicine was good, but different. One was named “High Popalorum” and the other “Low Popahirum.” One bottle came from the bark of a tree skinned from the top down and the other from bark skinned from the roots up. And that, Long said, was the difference between the two parties – one was skinning from the ear down and the other from the ankle up.
On another occasion Long said, “They’ve got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.” Sounds like something Elizabeth Warren might say, but I’m not sure she has a sense of humor.
Humor is a great leveler in politics, but the storyteller needs to be careful lest the line that seems perfectly fine before it leaves your mouth lands like a cannonball.
The very latest addition to my collection of one-liners comes from freshman Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, a politician facing a stiff challenge to his re-election. Kirk was asked about fellow Senator Lindsey Graham, a never married bachelor, who is now running for president. Graham said he’d figure out the first lady role, assuming he has the chance, by calling upon his sister and a stable of friends, a kind of rotating list of first ladies.
Kirk, trying to be funny, told an interviewer: “I’ve been joking with Lindsey…did you see that? He’s going to have a rotating first lady. He’s a bro with no ho.” Kirk helpfully added, “that what we’d say” on the predominately African-American south side of Chicago.
Rick Perry’s “oops” quote seems appropriate. Kirk apologized and Democrats pounced bringing to mind one of the great political observations uttered about politicians by a non-politician.
“Reader, suppose you were an idiot,” Mark Twain wrote. “And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”