Governor Doesn’t Measure Up To Name-Callers of Yesteryear
By LAURENCE DARMIENTO
It’s not the kind of name calling that exactly strikes fear in the hearts of men.
Still, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s description of Democrats as “girlie men” will likely take its place in America’s annals of notable political invective a lengthy catalog of rhetoric that has waxed and waned over the decades.
Here in California just a decade ago, former Assembly Speaker Doris Allen, at war with her own party, called her fellow Republican lawmakers “power-mongering men with short penises.” She stepped down shortly thereafter.
Of course, there was no shortage of rhetoric during the heated impeachment proceedings of President Bill Clinton. That includes the phrasing from Republican Rep. Dan Burton to an Indiana newspaper: “This guy’s a scumbag. That’s why I am after him.”
“These kinds of comments we have had throughout our history. And one reason is that they are effective,” said Elizabeth Garrett, director of the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics. “It makes things salient.”
The governor’s colorful remarks at an Ontario shopping mall, aimed at closing a state budget deal with recalcitrant Democrats, come amid a national resurgence of far nastier political rhetoric that many have traced to lingering cultural and political divisions stemming from the 1960s.
But the history of political invective in America goes back to the roots of the republic itself, when even the Founding Fathers were at political war with each other.
“It has been the political career of this man to begin with hypocrisy, proceed with arrogance and finish with contempt,” said Thomas Paine, describing his political adversary John Adams, the nation’s second president.
During the administration of John Adams, in fact, the rhetoric became so heated that the Federalist-dominated Congress passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.
The legislation prohibited spoken or written criticism of the government and was aimed at Thomas Jefferson’s supporters, who had labeled Adams and the Federalists “monarchists” and traitors.
While it may seem tame by today’s standards, being labeled a monarchist after the revolution against the British Crown was a strong insult. In response, Federalist poison pen writers crowed about Thomas Jefferson’s “bastard” slave children. Jeffersonians also were called Jacobins, after the French group that executed the king and launched the Reign of Terror.
American name-calling heated up again as the Civil War approached in May of 1856, when Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner gave a speech deploring Kansas being admitted to the Union as a slave state.
Sumner mocked South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler in the speech as the “Don Quixote” of slavery, “ready to do all its humiliating offices.” A few days later, Butler’s nephew, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks, beat Sumner unconscious on the floor of the Senate with 30 strikes from his cane.
After the Civil War, the country entered a period marked by incredible economic growth, with political division largely a matter of personality. But that is something that can also drive nasty rhetoric.
Notable was the vicious presidential campaign of 1884 between former Maine Rep. James G. Blaine, a powerful politician of questionable ethics, and New York Gov. Grover Cleveland, who had fathered a child out of wedlock (and went on to win the presidency).
Blaine’s campaign cry became “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!” In response, Cleveland’s campaign retorted: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine,” a reference to Blaine’s shady involvement with the railroad industry.
The 20th century has been marked by presidents who had built their reputations on political invective.
Theodore Roosevelt, who made his name as a Rough Rider during the Spanish American War, once likened a pacifist to “a traitor to his country and to humanity as is the most brutal wrongdoer.”
Harry Truman, of course, was known by the war cry “Give ’em hell Harry,” and he was fond of the word. During the 1960 presidential campaign, when he hit the stump for John Kennedy, he told a crowd that anyone who voted for Nixon “could go to hell.”
If anything, political rhetoric has heated up more since then something many trace to the deep cultural divisions that began in the 1960s.
While President Ronald Reagan was praised as a statesman after his recent death, he was far from temperate during his tenure as California governor during the Vietnam War protests.
In April 1970, Reagan had this to say about protesters: “If it takes a blood bath to silence the demonstrators let’s get it over with.”
That type of remark, followed the next month by the shooting deaths of four anti-war protesters at Kent State University, might be enough to force someone out of office today, but not then.
“Reagan was the guy who would bring law and order. If you basically supported that agenda, you treated what he said as a bit of hyperbole that in some way was not wrong,” said Howard Gillman, a USC professor of political science.
Fourteen years later, after Reagan had become president, House Speaker Tip O’Neil told reporters: “The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America.”
Against the backdrop of history, Schwarzenegger’s “girlie men” comment which drew from a “Saturday Night Live” skit that actually poked fun at the former Mr. Olympia can be seen as a downright tame.
“Being outrageous is part of his political persona,” Garrett said.
Blasts From the Past: Former President Ronald Reagan is among a long line of politicians who gave out zingers, and took a few themselves.
– “He is distrustful, obstinate, excessively vain, and takes no counsel from anyone.”
Thomas Jefferson on John Adams
– “He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.”
House Speaker Tip O’Neill on President Ronald Reagan
– “Tower of Jell-O.”
Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh on Gov. Pat Brown
– “One of the few in the history of this country to run for high office talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and lying out of both sides.”
President Harry Truman on Richard Nixon
– “If it takes a blood bath to silence the demonstrators, let’s get it over with.”
Gov. Ronald Reagan on campus anti-war demonstrators
– “The Republicans are a sordid crowd! They are a trifle better than the corrupt and lunatic wild asses of the desert who seem most influential in Democratic counsels.”
President Theodore Roosevelt
– “Do I let a group of power-mongering men with short penises tell me what to do? I can’t help it if they were born with shortcomings.”
Assembly Speaker Doris Allen in 1995 on her fellow Republican detractors