Magazine article The American Conservative

Planet of the Japes

Magazine article The American Conservative

Planet of the Japes

Article excerpt

Who in his right (or left) mind wouldn't rather read H.L. Mencken than Joe Alsop, or Christopher Hitchens than Ellen Goodman, or Florence King than Cal Thomas? Wit, even vituperative wit, refreshes and restores, while sodden clots of cliches only drag you down, down, down.

Wheneer Mugwumps (and I am one, except when I am not) decry the incivility of political discourse, some pedant can be counted on to drag out those "mackerel by moonlight" insults that filled the partisan press back in the day when Americans lived in a republic.

Amidst the unzoned sprawl of my files is a folder containing favorite examples of political invective I've collected over the years. I'll instance three: Massachusetts Federalist Josiah Quincy described Henry Clay and his fellow warhawks of 1812 as "sycophantic, fawning reptiles, who crowded at the feet of the president, and left their filthy slime upon the carpet of the palace." Quincy later served as president of Harvard, where he no doubt made a fuller study of sycophantic, fawning reptiles.

The St. Louis Globe Democrat, looking askance at the Democratic Party's 1880 standard bearer, the eminently respectable war hero Winfield Scott Hancock, editorialized that the nomination "no more changes the character of Democracy than a figurehead of the Virgin on Kidd's pirate craft would change it into an honest ship." I like the backhanded Catholic reference, lest readers forget that the Democracy is the party of rum, Romanism, and rebellion.

When the unloved Theodore G. Joslin became President Hoover's press secretary late in Hoover's term, a wag described it as the "first known instance of a rat joining a sinking ship." Maybe Michael Chertoff climbing aboard George W. Bush's Cabinet was the second?

These go on and on, some barbs directed at scoundrels and others at sages, but the vitriol is animated and made memorable by wit. One takes pleasure in reading a good sentence, even if one's paladin is speared by it. "Irreverence," as Mark Twain remarked, "is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense."

In this winter of American discontent the political invective is flowing all right, but in the manner of a busted latrine. It spews. The target is Ron Paul, who has committed the thought crime of "isolationism"--that is, he wishes neither to kill nor be killed by foreigners. …

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