Personal Vilification: The Classic Smear
Vilification, name-calling, mudslinging, vituperation, personal abuse, contumely--whatever you call it--has been part of political life since office- seekers first competed for votes. It has precipitated canings, beatings, lawsuits, and duels, given apoplexy to some of the Founding Fathers (and their successors), and driven others out of politics. And it long has brought color and brio to the practice of politics in the halls of state as on the hustings.
But of late, colorful political invective has fallen on evil days. There was a certain magisterial eloquence, even grandeur, to the better rhetorical barbs of the nineteenth century. Gone is the time when a John Randolph could proclaim to the whole House of Representatives that Edward Livingston was "a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight." No longer is there a Henry Clay to harpoon a long-winded speaker addressing "posterity" with the comment that the speaker is determined to await the arrival of his audience. In the modern rhetorical desert drab and unimaginative slurs are thought to be historic slanders.
Not that all the language was high-flown in days of yore. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century politics also had a large quotient of harsh and insulting vituperation of a sort almost never heard today--except perhaps in the bitter invective of a hard-fought British election or in the florid abuse of parliamentary discourse in the House of Commons where, whether in response to contemptuous Tory sneers or to deride conservative proposals, Labour members of the Militant Tendency have not infrequently interrupted an opposition speaker with a rousing rendition of the Communist anthem "Red Flag." The Tories, of course, are just as abusive, though most strive to make their sneers more elegant.