Name-calling is an unavoidable part of politicking. Always has been, and no matter how many promises are made to run a clean campaign, politicians cannot seem to avoid name-calling and mud-slinging – especially presidents and members of Congress.
The phenomenon exists beyond our shores, but name-calling in the British Parliament is a humorous diversion for Americans. We take our candidates’ slurs and epithets seriously when they are thrown at “our people.”
Ugly speech has been with us from the beginning of our nation. Thomas Jefferson called John Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character” while Adams publicly entreated Almighty God to “shield my country from (Jeffersonian) destruction.”
Imagine the illuminating political garbage if the internet had been in existence for 200 years. We would be slap out of landfill space from all the excesses taken with our language.
Today, President Donald Trump is noted for his descriptive tweets. His name-calling is fruit from a withered vine compared to that most epitomical of elocutionaries, Spiro Agnew. Of all the political name-callers in my lifetime, Agnew was a Sequoia in a field of Creeping Sedum.
The former governor of Maryland who was Richard Nixon’s vice president, Agnew once referred to anti-Nixon and Vietnam War protesters as “nattering nabobs of negativism … hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”
Now that’s an epithet for the ages.
He didn’t care for the national news media. He put the media under the nattering nabobs umbrella and said “instant analyses” of Nixon’s speeches were the work of fake intellectuals and “supercilious sophisticates,” terms he used more than once to describe opponents.
He called so-called leaders who couldn’t seem to get anything done – and those who could not correct the wayward ways of America’s collegiate youth – “pusillanimous pussyfooters” and “vicars of vacillation.”
Agnew labeled college students “the criminal left,” and said they belong “not in a dormitory but in a penitentiary. Black or white, the criminal left … is interested in promoting those collisions and conflict that tear democracy apart.”
Remember Hillary Clinton’s ruinous presidential campaign statement about “deplorables?” Per Agnew, “There are people in our society who should be separated and discarded.”
Agnew, like most presidents and vice presidents of our time, had speech writers, professional wordsmiths who deliver what the boss wants. Agnew had Pat Buchanan and William Safire.
Safire, so the story goes, took credit for “nattering nabobs” and said “pusillanimous pussyfooters” was Buchanan’s idea. Regardless, Agnew delivered those speeches with a straight face.
Agnew was caught up in scandal from his days as governor and became a liability when Watergate roiled and boiled around Nixon. Agnew settled on a deal in which he pleaded “nolo contendere” to not reporting taxable income. He served three years of unsupervised probation and payed a $10,000 fine.
He resigned as vice president on Oct. 10, 1973, a move he said was in the national interest. Agnew became a consultant for foreign business interests. He wrote a book defending his political career and lambasted the Nixon Administration for pressuring him to resign.
He didn’t make up any new Agnewisms for Nixon’s allies in the book, but he left no doubt he was angry at being separated and discarded. The political flower of flagellation did leave his mark on American politics.
You may reach your own conclusion whether that is good, bad or indifferent. I tell you only that there were many people – including news nabobs – who hoped the scandals way back then were unfounded, truly, for the good of the country.
At the risk of revealing myself as a name-caller, I submit only a complete fool would try to ruin an opponent and create division no matter what the cost.
Reach Larry Clark at email@example.com