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The Lost Art of Low-Brow Rhetoric

August 23, 2010

Two political blunders this month, one by an overly seasoned professional and the other by an arrogant rookie, show the low levels occupied by today’s political rhetoric. Gone are the days of clever cuts and brainy barbs. Maybe that’s because clever and brainy are not adjectives associated with a growing number of public officials.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs may have been correct in his description of individuals who earn their livings by being professional liberals, whether as elected officials or as political operatives. In an interview with The Hill, Gibbs expressed disapproval (and by extension, the disapproval of his boss) of Democrats who publicly criticize the president, calling them the “professional left” and suggesting liberals who compare Barack Obama with George W. Bush should be “drug tested.”

It is true that many people on the left, and on the right, make their livings by sticking to a political ideology. For instance, I know of a fellow who made his living by being a professional community organizer. This professional liberal, in the words of Gibbs, went on to become a United States senator and then president of the United States.

Oh, and I wouldn’t bring up the issue of drug testing to the boss if I were Mr. Gibbs.

So, in this case, the opportunity to take a cheap, insulting, and snarky position in defense of a professional liberal by bashing professional liberals seems a bit weird.

And, speaking of weird, did you hear about Keith Halloran? The former (emphasis on “former”) Democratic candidate for the New Hampshire state legislature used the occasion of the plane crash that killed former Alaska senator Ted Stevens and four other passengers to wish former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin had been onboard? Halloran posted his wacky wish on Facebook as a response to a posting about the crash by a New Hampshire republican lawmaker.

Halloran apologized and dropped out of the race, which from what I could tell from searching the Internet, is not a great loss to the state’s Democratic Party or to the fine people of the “Live Free or Die” state.

But the Halloran fallout didn’t stop with him. For some strange and unfathomable reason, state representative Timothy Horrigan posted a comment on Halloran’s Facebook page in which he said he didn’t wish for Palin’s death because a dead Sarah Palin would be more dangerous than a live one. Horrigan resigned the next day and discontinued his re-election campaign.

I’m not sure who or what to blame for this decline in political rhetoric. Gibbs attributed his statements to watching too much cable news. Messrs Halloran and Horrigan might blame Facebook for tempting their baser instincts with that inviting comment box, which seduced them like a street-siren promising quick and empty satisfaction.

Or, maybe we, as a society, have lost our sense of humor. Maybe we take much too seriously every word that comes out of the mouths of people schooled in the art of the pithy sound bite. Maybe we have become so politically high-minded that we have lost our appreciation for low-brow rhetoric.

There was a time in the history of our republic when political rivals settled their differences with fisticuffs on the floor of the House of Representatives or a duel at dawn in Weehawken. No, we don’t need a return to those violent days of yesteryear, but maybe we need a return to those days when people allowed their politicians to vent their feelings much like professional wrestlers challenging their opponents to a Texas cage grudge match. In that case, we would let them rant and rave, point and posture, and then get down to the business at hand.

And really, is it not fair to compare our political system to professional wrestling where bad guys become good guys, and former opponents form tag teams to deliver some whuppin’ on the other guys? A bit of a metaphorical stretch, you say? Not in a world where Linda McMahon, co-founder of the WWE, may be the next U.S. senator from Connecticut.

With that in mind, maybe we should grow some thicker skin and allow our professional liberals and conservatives the opportunity to engage is some good, old-fashioned, name calling and mudslinging.

For example, Thomas Paine told George Washington that “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?”

Texan Sam Houston said a political contemporary had all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty.

And, my favorite, which you will never hear today, came from U.S. Sen. William Jenner regarding New York governor Averell Harriman: “He’s thin, boys. He’s thin as pi** on a hot rock.”

So, how do you think that would play in today’s fragmented and tweeting world? I’d like to find out.

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Copyright ©2010 John David Powell

John David Powell writes his Lone Star Award-winning columns from Shadey Hill Ranch in Texas. His email address is johndavidpowell@yahoo.com.