What Churchill said to Lady Astor (and Ann Coulter didn’t say to Obama)

The decline of wit in public life

3 minute read
Will future generations extol the droll wit of Ann Coulter?
Will future generations extol the droll wit of Ann Coulter?
Rush Limbaugh calls a Georgetown law student a slut and a prostitute for advocating insurance coverage for contraceptives. The Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouts, "You lie" during President Obama's State of the Union address. Ann Coulter refers to Obama as "the retard." The likes of Donald Trump and Glenn Beck repeatedly hurl slurs about the president's fitness for office.

This anecdotal evidence suggests that incivility and intemperate language are on the rise in political and public discourse. The public itself apparently thinks so too. According to one survey, 72 percent of Americans perceive the general tone and level of incivility to be highest in government and politics.

But is this just an American phenomenon? A manual for honorable members of Britain's Parliament states, "Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of political exchange. Insulting, coarse or abusive language, imputation of false motives, charges of lying or being drunk, and misrepresentation of the words of another" are to be avoided.

Assaulting a stutterer

It makes you wonder: Where did the authors of this manual get such ideas, if not from their own members? For instance, Prime Minister David Cameron recently described an opposition member with a chronic stutter as "like having someone with Tourette's permanently sitting opposite you."

And the disgraced press baron Conrad Black taunted author Jeremy Paxton, saying, " I am proud of actually being able to endure a discussion like this without getting up and smashing your face in."

I ask you: What has happened to the pithy political exchange, such as the time Lady Astor accused Winston Churchill of being drunk? "Ah yes," Churchill replied, "and you are ugly; but in the morning I shall be sober."

On another occasion Lady Astor (who seemed to make a career of playing Churchill's foil) said that if she were Churchill's wife she would poison his tea, to which he responded: "If I were your husband. I'd drink it."

Will we ever again see the likes of this exchange?

Disraeli's comeback

Then there was the time a member of Parliament said to Benjamin Disraeli: "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease."

"That depends sir," Disraeli replied, "on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

Good stuff. But why does there seem to be so little of it these days?

The straitjacket of e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter might militate against florid, witty and even barbed responses. Or perhaps it's the decline of an education based upon literature, language and rhetoric. Or the general acceptance of coarseness in movies and plays, all in the name of honest realism.

After all, it wasn't until 1965 that the word "fuck" was uttered on British television by the brilliant and eccentric theater critic Kenneth Tynan. The event occasioned four motions in the House of Commons attacking him. And that was before anyone had even heard of David Mamet.♦

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