Author Mike Purdy is a professional political guy: a speaker, podcaster, and frequent contributor/talking head on an A-list of media outlets. He’s pretty good at it, and likable, too.
Now he has added to his already impressive resume with a slim but nifty little volume entitled: 101 Presidential Insults: What They Really Thought About Each Other – and What It Means to Us.
This is one of those books that should be in every library, and a dandy little gift for any politics-lover who wants a quick, snappy and amusing read!
This is about Presidents on Presidents. Some commented on a past president, some on a man who eventually became president. Even George Washington found a few choice words to criticize James Monroe!
Personally volatile POTUSES like the Andrews (Jackson and Johnson) are are only minimally included, although I suspect author Purdy made a valiant effort to track down some slamming-damning quotes from them. James Monroe, John Tyler, James Knox Polk and Zachary Taylor were able to keep their venom contained. Likewise Chet Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. And Calvin Coolidge wasn’t nicknamed “Silent Cal” for nothing.
What is particularly delicious about the book is its glossary of insults, consistent with the mores of past times. Few early presidents would stoop to using profanity in public – whether written or verbal. About as profane as they might get, would be “damn fool.” Tame, by today’s standards.
Some of the choice creations of literacy come from Theodore Roosevelt, whose dandy way with words surpasses most of our POTUSES. He quotably considered that William McKinley (his boss at the time) had the backbone of a chocolate eclair. He called Woodrow Wilson a Byzantine logothete. (And when was the last time YOU used that phrase in conversation?) He also called him a “lily-livered skunk.” (Take that, you varmint!) Even his ex-best friend, William Howard Taft couldn’t escape TR’s wrath: he called him a “puzzlewit.” Would that all insults today could be said so elegantly, and with no need for the ubiquitous “bleeping.”
Harry Truman, one of our most outspoken and salty Presidents, liked history, and was not above taking spot-on aim at a few of his predecessors, and not without some truth. Calling Millard Fillmore a man who “swayed with the breeze” or Franklin Pierce as “a complete fizzle,” might be expected, but dismissing James Madison, the Father of our Constitution as someone “who couldn’t make up his mind” (according to Harry), is downright disrespectful. He was not much kinder to his successors, claiming that Ike didn’t “know any more about politics than a pig does about Sunday.” That he thought poorly of Richard Nixon might also be expected – many people had unkind words for him. But he was also unsparing about his immediate predecessor, FDR, commenting “he didn’t give a damn personally for me or you or anyone else in the world as far as I could see.”
But all Presidents need to take it on the chin as well as fire the first shot. Ike called Harry “a congenital liar;” Nixon called HST’s term in office a Scandal-a-Day Administration.
So what does it mean to us? Presidents are people, the same as we are, with the same failings and foibles and stuff that makes us human. None of them knew when they were in grammar school, that one day they would be First Occupant. Some had occasional lapses of good judgment. Some believed their “confidential” remarks to friends or even to their diaries (like the venomous John Quincy Adams) would remain private – forever! (Silly them!)
Even George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, on the highest altar of Presidents, had tempers that were occasionally lost, and opinions that occasionally were not kept to themselves. Today, with the pervasive influx of various social media, the frenzied need for being in some kind of a “loop,” and the total disregard for anything that resembles privacy and respect, the boundaries have changed dramatically. The better angels of our collective vocabulary are gone with the dodo.
Mud slinging has been around as long as there was mud and people had discovered language. Different generations might use different language but it is still the same old mud. As Harry Truman also said, “There is nothing new under the sun except the history we don’t know.”
Mike Purdy has given us a wonderful little glimpse into the darker presidential vocabulary, and we can enjoy it. Best of all, we can leave this book on the table without fearing our children’s corruption. But he also implores us in his introduction for our need to “reset our political discourse from one of rancor to respect.” Good idea. Second the motion! Good book, too!
Available on most online sites!
Author: Mike Purdy