Wit, Humor and the Presidents

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 29, 2013 | Go to article overview

Wit, Humor and the Presidents


Byline: John R. Coyne Jr. SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Paul Dickson, a noted author, commentator and lexicographer, warms up the audience by opening this entertaining and informative book with a list of 44 presidential firsts, in no real way related to the subject of presidential neologisms or phrases, but guaranteed to grab our attention.

A sampling: James Buchanan, first and only president who never married; Ulysses S. Grant, first president to view the Pacific Ocean; James Garfield, first left-handed president; William McKinley, first to ride in an automobile; Herbert Hoover, first president to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese and Harry S. Truman, first president to ride in a submarine.

The book's main attractions, though, arranged alphabetically, are the words and phrases coined by presidents, their speechwriters, advisers and people associated with them.

Instant analysis, writes Mr. Dickson, is a term coined by Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1969 to refer to the practice of summarizing and commenting on an important White House speech immediately after the speaker has gone off the air. That speech, many believed, given in Des Moines, Iowa, resulted in media efforts to try for some measure of objectivity and include conservative views in their commentaries. Although Mr. Dickson doesn't identify the author, the speech was written by Pat Buchanan, who, with William Safire, would write for Agnew through the 1970 congressional campaign.

Among other Agnewisms are the characterizations of liberals and Democrats as nattering nabobs of negativism, "pusillanimous pussyfooter "and"vicars of vacillation "all of which Mr. Dickson identifies as the creations of Safire, although he doesn't include"an effete corps of impudent snobs," Agnew's own formulation, of which he was very proud.

Instant President belongs to Gerald R. Ford, coined after he succeeded Richard M. Nixon without being elected: I was America's first instant vice president - and now, America's first instant president.

Legalized larceny comes from Calvin Coolidge's 1925 inaugural address, discussing the collection of any taxes not absolutely necessary; and lunatic fringe, was coined by Theodore Roosevelt in his review of the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art. As the former president put it, In this recent art exhibition the lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists, or Near-Impressionists. …

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