Donald Trump called his former Presidential opponent Hillary Clinton “Crooked.” He labeled U.S. Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) “sleazy,” and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) “goofy.” Contrariwise, former Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders brands Trump a “pathological liar.” U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego (R-AZ) tattoos Trump as “an abject Liar,” and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) says Trump is “a 98 pound weakling.”
It may seem that name-calling has reached its high water mark in American Politics. However, in actuality political insults in the U.S. are as old as the Republic.
Thomas Paine, who wrote the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, was a vociferous critic of President John Adams. He enjoyed belittling the President. He once deadpanned: “Some people talk of impeaching John Adams, but I am for softer measures. I would keep him to make fun of him.”
In 1800, while seeking re-election, Adams was involved in arguably the dirtiest Presidential campaign in American history against his arch-nemesis Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson hired political pamphleteer James Callender to attack Adams’ reputation. Callender successfully spread a mendacious rumor that Adams’ ambition was to order an invasion of France. Adams coefficients labeled Jefferson: “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mullatto father.”
Adams son, John Quincy Adams, had a similar rivalry with his Presidential successor Andrew Jackson. Adams’ supporters referred to Jackson’s wife Rachel as an “adulteress” because she had not completed her divorce from her first husband. Mrs. Jackson died days before the election. An inflamed Jackson put the blame on Adams for his wife’s death, averring: “May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them. I never can.”
In 1833, Harvard University awarded an honorary degree to President Andrew Jackson. John Quincy Adams, a Harvard University alumnus, boycotted the ceremony. Adams had lost his re-election bid to Jackson in 1832. In his diary, Adams called Jackson, who had no college education: “A barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.”
U.S. Representative John Sherman, an Ohio Republican, was a caustic critic of Democratic President James Buchanan. Sherman quipped: “The Constitution provides for every contingency in the Executive, except a vacancy in the mind of the President.”
Attacking an opponent’s intellect is a recurring motif in American political history. Ulysses S. Grant, and Donald Trump, both Republicans, had not come from the political world. Grant had risen to the Presidency through his military exploits in the Civil War. Trump through the business world. Like Trump, some politicians questioned Grant’s intellectually heft. Former Georgia Governor Joseph Brown belittled President Ulysses S. Grant, stating: “The people are tired of a man who has not an idea above a horse or a cigar.”
The aforementioned quote might be expected since Brown was a Democrat, but William Claflin, the Chairman of Grant’s own party, also excoriated Grant. Claflin averred after Grant assumed the Presidency: “The cry was for no politicians, but the country did not mean no brains.”
More recently, in 1933 it was U.S. Interior Secretary Harold Ickies who assailed the intellect of U.S. Senator Huey Long (D-LA), known as a populist bomb thrower, as “suffering from halitosis of the intellect; that’s presuming he has an intellect.”
While President Franklin D. Roosevelt was revered by many in the Labor Movement, the labor movement castigated his Vice President John Nance Garner for his more business-friendly ideology. John L. Lewis, the President of the United Mine workers of America, branded Garner: “a labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking evil old man.”
In 1972, another AFL-CIO President George Meany, a traditional Democratic ally, took a hard swipe at the Democratic party’s Presidential nominee, George McGovern. His organization endorsed Republican Richard M. Nixon instead. Meany styled McGovern as: “An apologist for the Communist world.”
Some politicians have a certain knack for heaping insults on their political opponents. Lyndon B. Johnson had two creative ways of explaining his political foe U.S. House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford (R-MI). Ford was a constant partisan critic of Johnson, and delivered the Republican response to Johnson’s State of the Union Address in 1967. Johnson often mocked Ford in private, telling his associates that Ford had been the Center on the University of Michigan Football team, and jokingly said of Ford: “He’s a nice guy, but he played too much football with his helmet off.”
For his part, Johnson did not think much of Ford’s intellectual dexterity. After hearing Ford excoriate Johnson’s “Model Cities” program, the President said to an aide: “You’ve got a little baby boy. Well, you take his little building blocks and go up and explain to Jerry Ford what we’re trying to do.”
In 2005, President George W. Bush suggested that “intelligent design” should be taught in public schools alongside creationism. This precipitated U.S. Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) to quip: “People might cite George Bush as proof that you can be totally impervious to the effects of Harvard and Yale education.”
In 1988, Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis dexterously capitalized on a spat between two leading candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. Dukakis told a Democratic crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: “Vice President (George H.W.) Bush and Senator (Robert) Dole have been saying some rather nasty things about each other. Senator Dole says the Vice President is not much of a leader and the Vice President says Senator Dole is not much of a leader. I don’t ordinarily agree with those guys but in this case I agree with both of them. Neither of them is much of a leader.”
On rare occasions, a politician will actually insult his/her own constituents. U.S. Senator Stephen M. Young (D-OH 1959-1971) was known for his blunt and sometimes sarcastic responses to constituents who challenged his views. One letter-writer ended his correspondence by writing: “I would welcome the opportunity to have intercourse with you.” Senator Young responded: “You sir, can have intercourse with yourself.”
Similarly, U.S. Representative John Steven McGroarty (D-CA 1935-1939) once wrote back to a constituent who sent him a critical letter saying he had not kept a campaign promise. McGroarty wrote: “One of the countless drawbacks of being in Congress is that I am compelled to receive impertinent letters from a jackass like you in which you say I promised to have the Sierra Madre mountains reforested and I have been in Congress two months and haven’t done it. Will you please take two running jumps and go to Hell.”
Contemporaneous political insults are no more outrageous than political insults from years past. Of course, most politicians are equipped with thick skin, and most politicians realize that politics is a dirty playground, not for the faint of heart. In 1936, Republican Vice Presidential nominee Frank Knox ridiculed President Franklin D. Roosevelt calling him “a blundering visionary and fanatic,” and said that the New Deal contained “something of Karl Marx equally as much as Groucho Marx.” (Karl Marx was the author of The Communist Manifesto. Groucho Marx was a famous comedian). Knox later became U.S. Secretary of the Navy under Roosevelt.
Upon listening to the insults by, and about, Donald Trump, one might think the coarsening of American political discourse has reached epic proportions. In truth, American politicians have been exacting discourteous barbs at political opponents since the nation was founded, and the Trump political era is no aberration.