Political Potshots Have Always Packed Punch

Rob Kyff on

If you think today's political insults are nasty, consider these mud bombs hurled at Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce and Grover Cleveland, respectively: "A drunken trowser-maker!" "The pimp of the White House!" "A moral leper!" John Adams was called "a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character."

But some of the most potent POTUS potshots have been more crafty than crude. Pundits who thought John F. Kennedy was all image and no substance urged him to show "less profile and more courage." The inspiration for this line, a clever allusion to Kennedy's book "Profiles in Courage," came from Eleanor Roosevelt, who slyly advised Kennedy, "When blows are rained on one, it is advisable to turn the other profile."

Critics of Harry F. Truman drew on both low and high culture, cunningly revising the pop song lyric "I'm just wild about Harry" to "I'm just mild about Harry," and the famed epigram of British essayist Alexander Pope from "To err is human" to "To err is Truman."

U.S. Representative John Sherman, a Republican from Ohio, snarked at Democratic President James Buchanan, "The Constitution provides for every contingency in the Executive, except a vacancy in the mind of the President."

Alleging a similar cranial vacuum, U.S. Congressman Barney Frank remarked, "People might cite George W. Bush as proof that you can be totally impervious to the effects of a Harvard and Yale education."

And don't forget those presidential nicknames, e.g., "Useless Grant," "Rutherfraud" B. Hayes and "President Hardly" (Warren G. Harding).

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The presidents have often returned fire with equal cunning. Herbert Hoover, annoyed by the continually shifting positions of his opposing candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, called him a "chameleon on plaid." Self-appointed orthopedic surgeons Theodore Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant reported that William McKinley and James Garfield possessed, respectively, "the backbone of a chocolate eclair" and "the backbone of an angleworm."

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, when asked if his vice president, Richard Nixon, had contributed any major ideas to his administration, replied, "If you give me a week, I might think of one." Abraham Lincoln claimed that Sen. Stephen Douglas' views on popular sovereignty were "as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death."

Talk about delivering the straight skinny!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2018 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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