North Korea’s florid insults and President Trump’s schoolyard ripostes are but the latest in a long tradition of political and diplomatic put-downs. And they are far from the most cutting.
Pyongyang has arguably done better (or worse, depending on point of view). Among U.S. presidents, it has called Lyndon B. Johnson a “living corpse,” George W. Bush a “tyrannical imbecile” and Barack Obama a “clown” and a “monkey.”
In 2009, North Korea’s foreign ministry described then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a “funny lady” who sometimes “looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.”
Trump, however, is the first U.S. president who has answered in kind, reaching into late-20th-century pop to deride North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man on a suicide mission.” Kim, or at least his translator, sent many Americans scurrying to their dictionaries by dredging up the 14th-century word “dotard” to describe the U.S. president as old and senile.
But even leaving aside the buzz-killing possibility of nuclear war, none of the current jousting reaches the level of historically clever ridicule. For that, top marks are usually given to the British.
Of the long-necked, sour-faced French leader Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill once said, “He looks like a female llama who has been surprised in the bath.”
Told by Lady Astor that if she were his wife she would poison his tea, Churchill responded that, if he were her husband, he would drink it.
More recently, the Labour Party politician Denis Healey famously said that debating his mumbling, Conservative counterpart Geoffrey Howe was “like being savaged by a dead sheep.” (Healey and Howe both died in 2015.) Of John Prescott, a member of his own party, Healy said, “He has the face of a man who clubs baby seals.”
The United States’ Founding Fathers were no slouches in the threatening-insult department. Thomas Jefferson is often credited with calling John Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman,” although many historians attribute the line to a pro-Jefferson political pamphleteer during one of their campaigns against each other.
Adams’s partisans, on his behalf, called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
During a pre-Civil War secession crisis, Trump’s favorite former president, Andrew Jackson, told his vice president, John Calhoun of South Carolina, that “if you secede from my nation, I will secede your head from your body.”
Issues of slavery and secession also led to one of the most famous incidents in Congress, when Massachusetts Republican Charles Sumner, in the spring of 1856, called Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas a “noisesome, squat, and nameless animal.” The verbal attack resulted in Sumner being seriously beaten with a cane on the Senate floor.
Trump is sometimes compared in terms of language to Alabama governor and four-time presidential candidate George Wallace, who issued similarly blunt attacks against “pointy-headed” bureaucrats and intellectuals, “liberals” and “pinkos.”
Among the most memorable political put-downs in modern U.S. history was Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s response to Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) in the 1988 vice-presidential debate, after Quayle defended his lack of experience by noting that he had spent as much time in Congress as John F. Kennedy had when Kennedy ran for Congress.
“I knew Jack Kennedy,” the silver-haired Texas Democrat responded. “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
On the presidential side of the same race, Vice President George H.W. Bush called his Democratic opponents Bill Clinton and Al Gore “bozos.”
Hillary Clinton has endured her share of ridicule, much of it indirect or gender-related. When she first campaigned for president, long before the North Koreans or Trump took aim at her, Clinton acknowledged in a 2008 debate with Obama that she perhaps had a personality deficit compared with the charismatic young senator from Illinois, whom she conceded was “very likable.”
Obama interjected with a patronizing smile, “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” words that many women considered sexist reminders of painful efforts to get ahead.
Among the most prolific domestic insulters of recent years has been New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who during his time in office has called an openly gay lawmaker “numb-nuts,” a Navy SEAL an “idiot,” and the state Senate budget committee chairman an “arrogant SOB.” During a news conference, he once told reporters they should “take a bat” to state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D), a grandmother in her 70s.
On the diplomatic stage, North Korea has had stiff competition from Venezuela, whose President Hugo Chávez called George W. Bush a “monkey” and, in a 2006 U.N. speech, a “devil” who trailed the stench of sulfur in his wake.
After Trump slapped sanctions this year on the repressive Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro, the late Chavez’s successor, Maduro warned Trump to “get your pig hands out of here.”
But Maduro, and perhaps not even Kim, can compare with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, who separately called both Obama and Pope Francis a “son of a whore” and the U.S. ambassador a gay “son of a bitch.”
Asked during last year’s U.S. presidential campaign to compare himself to Trump, Duterte replied: “Donald Trump is a bigot, and I am not.”
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