9 of History's Most Creative Political Insults
Take note, politicians: If you’re going to tear your rival a new one, at least use some imagination. Calling the other person a “loser” just doesn't cut it. Instead, take a note from these world leaders, who treated insults like an art form.
1. “[HE IS] THE KIND OF POLITICIAN WHO WOULD CUT DOWN A REDWOOD TREE AND THEN MOUNT THE STUMP AND MAKE A SPEECH FOR CONSERVATION.”
The Insulter: U.S. presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965)
The Target: Vice presidential nominee Richard Nixon (1913-1994)
The Context: In 1952, Stevenson was in the midst of an unsuccessful campaign against Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. All the while, Tricky Dick—known as Ike’s “hatchet man”—painted the Democrat as being soft on communism. “Stevenson,” Nixon sometimes quipped, “holds a Ph.D. degree from Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment.”
His character assaulted, Stevenson took aim at Nixon’s. Those close to Eisenhower’s running mate reported that the “redwood” comment really made Nixon bristle, but it achieved nothing. In the electoral college, Stevenson ultimately lost by 353 votes. Four years later, he ran against Eisenhower and Nixon again—and lost by an even larger margin.
2. “IN A RECENT FIRE, BOB DOLE’S LIBRARY BURNED DOWN. BOTH BOOKS WERE LOST. AND HE HADN’T EVEN FINISHED COLORING ONE OF THEM.”
The Insulter: U.S. Congressman Jack Kemp (1935-2009)
The Target: Senator Bob Dole (1923- )
The Context: This scathing witticism was also an epic comeback. The year was 1985. Kemp, then a Republican congressman from New York, had helped convince President Reagan to refrain from supporting a bill that would’ve made $300 billion-worth of spending cuts—and freeze Social Security benefits. At the time, Kemp feared that these measures might seriously hurt the G.O.P.’s image.
Reagan heeded this advice and the bill was never passed. The following year, the Republicans lost their majority in the Senate. Many on the right blamed Kemp for this mini-disaster—including Bob Dole of Kansas. At a young Republicans meeting, Dole took aim at his colleague’s pretty boy image. “Kemp,” he said, “wants a business deduction for hair spray.” Hearing this, the New Yorker retorted, “In a recent fire, Bob Dole’s library burned down. Both books were lost. And he hadn’t even finished coloring one of them.”
Years later, these two put their differences aside and shared the 1996 Republican presidential ticket. By the way, that campaign’s original website is still up & running. Enjoy the nostalgia, political junkies!
3. “A MUSHROOM EXCRESCENCE”
The Insulter: Congressman John F. Mercer (1759-1821)
The Target: U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)
The Context: A native of Virginia, Mercer represented that state in the Continental Congress and was also sent as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, this time representing Maryland. He refused to sign the document, but continued with his political career, and by 1792, he was working in the U.S. House of Representatives as a congressman from Maryland.
That year, he was running for a second term. An outspoken anti-Federalist, Mercer played to his base by trashing the founder of said party, U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. At one speech, the congressman really ripped into Hamilton, calling him corrupt and a servant to the economic elite. Still more inflammatory was Mercer’s remark that the original Federalist was “a mushroom excrescence” unfit for his current post.
Bad move. As the Marylander soon found out, Hamilton took personal attacks very seriously. Following a heated exchange of letters, the Secretary marched over to Mercer’s Philadelphia home and insisted that he take back all of his remarks. Worn down, Mercer retracted enough to appease Hamilton—thus avoiding a possible duel.
4. “HE HAS … THE GIFT OF COMPRESSING THE LARGEST AMOUNT OF WORDS INTO THE SMALLEST AMOUNT OF THOUGHT.”
The Insulter: House of Commons conservative Winston Churchill (1874-1965).
The Target: Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937).
The Context: Churchill was not a known mincer of words. On March 23, 1933, he hacked away at MacDonald during a well-received address given at the House of Commons.
Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, MacDonald was widely criticized for his lackluster oratory skills, as he tended to ramble. “We have heard him on so many topics,” Churchill lamented, “from India to unemployment and many other matters, providing us, apparently, with an inexhaustible flow of vague, well-sounding exhortation, the precise purpose of which is largely wrapped in mystery.” Faced with mounting opposition, an economic crisis, and Hitler’s rising Germany, MacDonald stepped down in 1935.
5. “A PIG, AN ASS, A DUNG HILL, THE SPAWN OF AN ADDER, A BASILISK, A LYING BUFFOON DRESSED IN A KING’S ROBES, A MAD FOOL WITH A FROTHY MOUTH AND A WHORISH FACE.”
The Insulter: Martin Luther (1483-1546)
The Target: King Henry VIII (1491-1547).
The Context: In 1521, Henry VIII published a strongly-worded book entitled Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, or Defense of the Seven Sacraments. Written in Latin, the pro-Catholic treatise makes the case against Martin Luther’s radical theology. (Though Henry would later get two annulments and have two other wives killed, Defense of the Seven Sacraments considers marriage indissoluble.)
Henry VIII’s arguments brought on cheers from Rome—Pope Leo X even proclaimed him “Defender of the Faith.” Meanwhile, Luther fumed. Outraged by the monarch’s rhetoric, he published a scathing rebuttal called Against Henry King of the English in 1521. Not content to merely call the one of the most powerful men in Europe a “liar,” Luther added that Henry VIII was “a pig, an ass, a dung hill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon dressed in a king’s robes, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face.”
Three years later, Luther offered the King an olive branch. In a futile attempt to sway Henry VIII away from Catholicism, the theologian took back his insults. Henry’s response was as cold as cold gets: The royal blamed Luther for the deaths of 70,000 protestants in the Peasant’s War and said that Luther had corrupted his own wife, a former nun.
6. “HE’S ALL TIP AND NO ICEBERG.”
The Insulter: Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating (1944- )
The Target: Treasurer Peter Costello (1957- )
The Context: When Costello, the longest-serving treasurer in Australia’s history to date, stepped down in November 2007, the liberal had occupied this position for over 11 years. A few months before Costello left office, Keating—who served as Prime Minister from 1991 to 1996—was asked by ABC Radio for his thoughts on this accomplished public servant. “The thing about poor old Costello is he is all tip and no iceberg,” Keating said. Disappointed in Costello’s apparent unwillingness to confront then-Prime Minister John Howard, he added that the treasurer “never gets the sword out.”
7. “THEY NEVER OPEN THEIR MOUTHS WITHOUT SUBTRACTING FROM THE SUM OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE.”
The Insulter: U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902)
The Target: Two congressional colleagues
The Context: “Czar” Reed (as he came to be known) ran a tight ship. A Republican from Maine, he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1876. Quickly rising through the ranks, Reed became Speaker when the GOP took over the House 13 years later. As Speaker, Reed enforced stricter quorum rules that would forever change the way business was done on Capitol Hill.
The New Englander was also renowned for his dry humor. Once, fed up with two other congressmen and their constant tongue wagging, Reed looked at his Sergeant-at-Arms and boomed, “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.”
8. “THERE ARE ONLY TWO PERFECTLY USELESS THINGS IN THIS WORLD. ONE IS AN APPENDIX AND THE OTHER IS POINCARE.”
The Insulter: French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929)
The Target: French President Raymond Poincaré (1860-1934)
The Context: Clemenceau made this cutting remark in 1921 after an operation for appendicitis. By then, it was an opinion that he’d held for years. The conservative Poincaré often found himself at odds with Clemenceau, who headed the left-wing Radical Party and ran a popular liberal newspaper. Nevertheless, as a show of national unity, the President tapped his rival to become Prime Minister in 1917—three years into World War I.
Despite this gesture, the two persistently held each other in mutual contempt. One entry in Poincaré’s diary calls Clemenceau a “Madman … Old, moronic, [and] vain.” For his part, the older radical was more open about his dislike of the President. Poincaré, Clemenceau told a friend, was “a lively little beast, dry, disagreeable, and not courageous. This prudence has preserved it up to the present day—a somewhat unpleasant animal, as you see, of which—luckily—only one specimen is known.”
9. “HE’S A PANDER BEAR.”
The Insulter: Former Senator Paul Tsongas (1941-1997)
The Target: Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton (1946- )
The Context: Tsongas was betrayed by his own accent. A product of Lowell, Massachusetts, he helped represent the Bay State in the House of Representatives from 1975 to 1979. After that, he moved on to a six-year Senate stint.
In 1992, Tsongas was running against Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. During the Florida primary, he came up with a zoological zinger. Seeing his opponent as a flip-flopper, Tsongas thought he’d get a few laughs by calling the Arkansan a “pander bear.” In a speech, he took the stage and tried out the brilliant new line.
There was just one problem. With a Boston dialect like Tsongas’s, the “R” sound usually gets replaced with an “Ah.” So, when the Massachusetts native said “pander,” almost everyone thought they’d heard “panda.” Failing to catch the joke, his live audience just stood there in an awkward silence—until Tsongas clarified: “You know, not a panda bear, but a pander bear.” Clinton won the primary.