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Are politicians wary of being witty?

When Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry of Cherryville denounced his Democratic opponent as “Nancy Pelosi's chosen recruit” who had “pockets stuffed with cash from Washington liberals,” he was indulging in a timeless political tradition: the colorful insult.

McHenry was portraying his Democratic opponent, Daniel Johnson, as a political tool of Pelosi, the speaker of the House from San Francisco whom some conservatives hope to turn into a political hobgoblin.

That's not an easy match to make. Johnson, after all, served in the U.S. Navy from 1998 to 2000 and received the Navy Marine Corps Medal – the Navy's highest peacetime award for heroism – for saving a crewmate during an accident on the U.S.S. Blue Ridge. Then for three years, he was a Wake County prosecutor whose cases included drug trafficking, robbery and murder. In 2007, he moved back to his hometown of Hickory to run for the U.S. House.

Still, McHenry is noteworthy as a politician who likes to use lively language. Few politicians these days do. It's up to the paid professional talkers – Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Keith Olbermann and the like – to hurl the oratorical rotten tomatoes.

Maybe it's the influence of public relations consultants, or maybe today's politicians are more earnest and fervid than witty, but there's clearly a decline in the use of the well-crafted insult. Consider these examples from livelier days.

Sam Houston, the general who became the first president of the Republic of Texas, described a political opponent as having all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty.

Mackerel by moonlight

Virginian John Randolph said of a rival, “Like rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks.”

Of William Jennings Bryan, politician David Houston said, “One could drive a schooner through any part of his argument and never scrape against a fact.”

Alexander Hamilton was harshly insulting to Thomas Jefferson, whose moral character he considered repulsive: “Continually puling about liberty, equality, and the degrading curse of slavery, he brought his own children to the hammer, and made money of his debaucheries.”

Henry Clay was equally harsh with South Carolinian John Calhoun, calling him a “rigid, fanatic, ambitious, selfish partisan, and sectional turncoat with too much genius and too little common sense, who will either die a traitor or a madman.”

The British have always been good at political insults. The 18th-century reformer John Wilkes was in a heated exchange with John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, who shouted, “I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox (venereal disease).”

Wilkes responded, “That sir, depends on whether I embrace your Lordship's principles or your Lordship's mistress.”

Two centuries later Jonathan Aitken had this description for what he considered Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's ignorance of the Middle East: “She probably thinks Sinai is the plural of sinus.”

Winston Churchill was a master of the craft. He described Prime Minister Clement Atlee as “a sheep in sheep's clothing.”

Shooting at Quayle

Wit does sometimes flare in modern campaigns, as when Adlai Stevenson said Richard Nixon was “the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.”

Among recent politicians, Vice President Dan Quayle was notable for inspiring memorable insults. Ross Perot called him “an empty suit that goes to funerals and plays golf.”

When Quayle declared after the 1992 Republican convention that he'd be “a pit bull” in the campaign, Bill Clinton responded: “That's got every fire hydrant in America worried.”

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