Political Comebacks: The Art of the Putdown Politicians are known for delivering a scripted message. Those who stray far from their prepared remarks often find themselves in trouble. But a select few who dare — think Winston Churchill or Daniel Webster — can make a point with their quick wit.
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Political Comebacks: The Art of the Putdown

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Political Comebacks: The Art of the Putdown

Political Comebacks: The Art of the Putdown

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The jokes we've just been hearing from Hillary Clinton and her supporters are sugar sweet compared to the political humor traditionally found along the campaign trail. Humor like the response Senator Daniel Webster made back in 1828 when he was offered the vice presidency.

INSKEEP: It's often considered a nothing job, and Webster said, I do not propose to be buried until I am dead. That's one of the quips from a collection titled "I'll Be Sober in the Morning," which puts together many great political one-liners.

MONTAGNE: The title comes from a particularly biting comment from a master of political wit, Winston Churchill.

As the book's editor, Chris Lamb, warns, political putdowns are not for the faint of heart.

Mr. CHRIS LAMB (Editor): The wit here is very mean-spirited. A good comeback - I mean, you want to leave your opponent red-faced and stammering and left to sort of pick up the pieces of their manhood in a thimble and go skulking off in silence.

MONTAGNE: And Winston Churchill is among those who show up with some frequency, because he had loads of these great comebacks.

Mr. LAMB: Yeah, Winston Churchill's sort of the star of the book. You know, Churchill could be so cruel and he would use his humor definitely as a weapon. And you know, the response that he had with Nancy Astor - Nancy Astor, the American-born politician in England, once shouted at Churchill and said, you know, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee. And Churchill's response was, if I were your husband, I'd drink it.

MONTAGNE: It's hard not to laugh, but there's definitely an edge to a lot of these. The famously intellectual Adlai Stevenson, back in the '50s offered a timeless take and not a very nice one on the voter.

Mr. LAMB: Yeah, we could use that every election, where, you know, he's approached by this woman supporter during one of his campaigns against Dwight Eisenhower, and the woman says, Governor, every thinking person will be voting for you.

Madam, that's not enough, Stevenson replied. I need a majority.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, I wonder if politicians by nature or inclination are particular good at what most people only wish they'd said.

Mr. LAMB: No, I don't think most political are. I think there's a small group of politicians who are very good at this. And it comes probably through seasoning, it comes from paying attention, and it comes from perhaps a heart that's a little darker than others.

MONTAGNE: Well, because this goes back so far, there's not a lot of women who, you know, show up with comebacks. And one comeback by a famous woman senator is quite funny, but it also shows how far, in a sense, we've come. It's Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Now, we're talking what year approximately?

Mr. LAMB: Oh, it must be in the, what, the '40s?


Mr. LAMB: And someone asked Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine what would you do if you woke up and found yourself in the White House. I would go the president's wife, Mrs. Smith said, apologize, and then leave at once.

MONTAGNE: And of course she was joking. She was a senator.

Mr. LAMB: Yeah, and I'm not sure that line really works anymore.

MONTAGNE: Some of the really classic comebacks date back to the 19th century and some of our earlier politicians. And one of them involved Henry Clay running into another lesser known politician, a congressman, John Randolph of Virginia.

Mr. LAMB: Yeah, these were two great egos. And in the early years of Washington D.C. the city was made up of wooden houses and muddy streets. And these two rivals, Randolph and Clay, meet on a narrow plank and one would have to step into the mud. And Randolph stood his ground and glared at Clay. I will not give way for a scoundrel, he said.

Clay bowed and smiled and stepped off the board. I will, he said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And it takes you just a moment to think, and then - right.

Mr. LAMB: Well, those are the nice one, because they're like a little stiletto and they sort of stab you in the stomach and you don't know for a second that you've been stabbed.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) The donkey is tired and thing, the elephant thinks he'll move in. They yell and they fuss but they're not fooling us, they're sisters under the skin. Because it's the same old merry-go-round...

MONTAGNE: The book is "I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes" by Chris Lamb. And there's more political putdowns at npr.org.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) If you want to end up safe and sound, get off of the merry-go-round. To be a real smarty just join a new party and keep your two feet on the ground.

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