When Bentsen told a baby-faced Dan Quayle, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," he was following in the tradition of expert quipsters Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Winston Churchill, whose lines are still remembered. Perfect put-downs transcend their settings. In politics, the successful put-down supersedes any issues of substance, just as on the playground. There are certain yo-momas from which no one can recover.
Ronald Reagan was good at these.
"There you go again," he said in a 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, accusing the president of misrepresenting his record. The line was accompanied by a smile and a patronizing shake of the head, and the audience laughed, sealing the deal. Reagan: 1, Carter: 0.
Those of us who rely on reason to vanquish our opponents find the perfect put-down infuriating. The put-down changes the terms of the debate; it replaces sober analysis with humor. It makes things personal. Anyone who was given a cutting nickname in seventh grade knows you can't argue with the perfect put-down. It's not a matter of what's right; it's a matter of perception, and you're stuck with it now.
Two of my favorites:
- "Another damned, thick, square, book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?" (William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, upon receiving the second volume from the author, 1781)
- "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" (Mary McCarthy on Lillian Hellman.)