Sweet Sandy Whiskers and Nattering Nabobs: Political Slurs Are Nothing New
After last night’s debates (which were as far from debates as can be), those who watched were either amused, saddened, or aghast at the bloody-minded invective that occasionally flew about. That was at times painful to watch but nevertheless guaranteed, in my mind, that some candidates are not suited to the presidency and so would not be my choice.
Trump was the childish egotist insisting he MUST be the nominee or, he threatened, he’d go for a third-party leap. Focused on his own narcissistic ambitions, he failed to grasp how futile that would be for conservatives and independents, guaranteeing a Democrat win. He then threatened Megyn Kelly for pointing out his misogynistic, hateful comments about women. This after berating McCain and saying he was not a ‘real’ war hero because he was captured. Those men who dodged the draft, like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, do not deserve to pass judgment on true heroes like John McCain and all the other men and women who answered their country’s call (even while most disagreed with the war).
Rand Paul and Chris Christie nearly came to blows over national security surveillance. Grown men should be able to disagree, respectfully, without demeaning or insulting each other. Both men are tenacious, but I believe listening is often more important than shouting. Paul behaved in similar fashion throughout, jabbing at individuals to stand out. He clipped Trump with a good point about how the Donald hedges his bets and buys politicians, to the detriment of honorable public servants. Otherwise, though, Paul came off as a petulant uncle whose vision has sizzled in the August sun.
Those like Rubio, Cruz, Huckabee, Jindal, and Fiorina, who rose above the fray with positive visions and strategies for returning America to greatness, were impressive. Some had a few moments but I saw no clear ‘winner.’ Dr Carson regaled the crowd with his uniqueness—open-heart surgery, separation of conjoined twins, removing half a brain (quipping that in DC he suspected that someone had already removed a few brains before his arrival). Huckabee began a diatribe apparently aimed at Trump but saved the day and made us all laugh when he revealed that the person ill-equipped to hold office was Hillary Clinton. Others also had some good points to make—Bush, Kasich, Perry, for example. The rest were either too extreme, too vanilla pudding, or unmemorable.
It was an interesting show and offers Americans many more choices than the typical dog-and-pony show foisted on us by the good-ol’-boy gang with their backroom deals and ‘anointed’ candidates (it’s her turn…). Many flavors, many strengths and several weaknesses offered up to conservatives, moderates, independents, and even liberals who have not swallowed the socialist progressive Koolaid. Time will tell whether America starts working again, solves its internal problems, and becomes the leader of the Free World again instead of pandering to murderous thugs and traitors.
As I watched this true reality show, I was reminded of a recent article by Rosemarie Ostler in Salon, in which she examines historical political slurs. A few are entertaining and/or revelatory of their time periods and the partisan views of voters and candidates. My favorite is the nickname given to Martin Van Buren, a Democrat who beat four Whig candidates for the presidency in 1836. The Whigs compared his mind to “’a tame bear tied to a stake,’” running in a tiny circle. He was called a “’dandy’” because he was so fussy about his appearance (wearing corsets!) and applied scent (cologne) to his red beard, earning the name “’Sweet Sandy Whiskers.’” His enemies called him slippery, lacking in principle, talking out of both sides of his (bewhiskered) mouth. These jibes might have been accurate—who knows?–but they slid off his back because the vote was splintered by having four opponents instead of one. Trump could learn strategy from this guy.
Then we have verbal abuse heaped on a man who was arguably our best president, Republican Abraham Lincoln, who saved the Union and emancipated the slaves. He was a brilliant, self-educated man who rose above his humble origins to hold the highest office, but Democrats called him Ignoramus Abe, making fun of him as a backwoods moron, a buffoon, even a Despot (in light of the Civil War). Even his own party members rejected him, fearing he would be too conciliatory to the South after its surrender. I recall a cartoon of the era portraying him as a monkey, demonizing a man who was simply upholding the constitution.
After Andrew Johnson’s disastrous regime following Lincoln’s assassination, in the 1868 election, the fires and hatred of the Civil War still burned hot. Republicans chose General Ulysses S Grant because of his heroic war exploits but Democrats called him “’the Butcher,’” because Virginia Confederates suffered their bloodiest losses to Grant. They also claimed he was a drunk and would be a dictator. Democrats chose a weepy Copperhead, former NY Governor Horatio Seymour, who ran a racist campaign accusing Grant of trying to “’Africanize’” the South. Who still remembers, by the by, that the Southern Democrats created the hateful, hate-filled Ku Klux Klan?
Nearly 20 years later, according to Ostler, the name-calling got more creative in the fight between Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican James Blaine. In the age of graft, fraud, bribery and other skullduggery known now as the Gilded Age, scoundrels acquired a new name–”’boodler.’” Early Dutch settlers in NY and NJ brought the word ‘boodle,’ meaning one’s estate or possessions, to America, but it soon was applied to counterfeit money and then to any ill-gotten gains. So a “’boodle politician’” fell right in with this crowd.
And that odd word leads inevitably to the extinct “snollygoster,” a term describing a manipulative phony bent on achieving political office without the requisite principles (or abilities). It was the Gay 90s version of camp followers and hangers-on, the yes men of yesterday. We still have those obnoxious hosebags; we just don’t call them snollygosters anymore (more’s the pity—imagine that line item on Hillary’s expense account: 7 snollygosters at $3400 each…).
Returning to personal appearance as a source of slurs, FDR soundly defeated Republican Thomas E Dewey, at least partly, we’re told, because Dewey parted his black hair sharply down the center and was the proud owner of a ‘toothbrush mustache,’ leading Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice to quip, “”How can you vote for a man who looks like the bridegroom on a wedding cake?’” He was also a fussy little man given to expletives like ‘good gracious,’ so who could resist tittering at such a figure?
Following George Wallace’s slurs against ‘ivory-tower folks with pointy heads,’ referring to so-called intellectuals who did not have average Americans’ best interests in mind when formulating policy, Richard Nixon likewise hurled insults at ‘eggheads’ as his vice president Spiro Agnew denounced almost everyone who disagreed with Nixon’s regime as ‘nattering nabobs of negativism.’ Truth be told, Aggie didn’t even think up the term; it was brilliant wordsmith William Safire! Agnew was so busy taking credit for Safire’s talking points, he forgot to cover his weasley tracks, later pleading no contest to charges of bribery and extortion and resigning as Vice President.
So, demonizing one’s opponents is not a new exercise, but social media has made bludgeoning insults hideously viral, allowing vituperative comments these days to be accepted as Gospel truth simply because no one stops to verify the veracity of the name-callers. Hitler said that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it is the truth. Well, no, that last statement is just not true. Hitler took credit for the ‘Big Lie’ comment, but the psychologist William James actually said, “There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.” Too many politicians these days count on superficial understanding and apathy on the part of voters to smear those with opposing views. And they are incredibly successful in planting false stories, painting all with their venomous vagaries.
God help us.
© 2015 Linda L Labin, PhD