"If you can't say anything nice about someone, come sit next to me." So read an embroidered pillow on a sofa in the salon of one of Washington's great dames, the late Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
The outspoken daughter of Teddy Roosevelt and wife of House Speaker Nicholas Longworth, she lived to the venerable age of 96. Mrs. Longworth was sometimes described as "the other Washington Monument," known for her acerbic comments about the politicians of days past and present.
President Calvin Coolidge, she declared, looked as if he'd been "weaned on a pickle." New York Governor and twice-presidential candidate Thomas Dewey resembled "the little man on the wedding cake," a description he never quite lived down. Herbert Hoover, she said, was nowhere near as exciting as a Hoover vacuum cleaner. "Of course, it's electric," she explained.
Compare those ripostes to the recent "bon mots" of others.
On the air February 25, Fox News Channel's Brit Hume called Democratic, anti-Iraq war Congressman Jack Murtha "dotty" and said, "This guy is long past the day when he had anything but the foggiest awareness of what the heck is going on in the world."
According to the New York Post, at an editorial board meeting there last week former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took a shot at Hillary Clinton. The paper reported that, "Asked whether Americans are ready to elect Rudy Giuliani -- a leader, the questioner noted, whom Ed Koch had called a 'nasty man' -- Gingrich shot back, 'As opposed to a nasty woman?'"
Then, of course, there's that pinup dream of the right-wing, Ann Coulter, who elevated the level of discourse at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference in DC by calling John Edwards "a faggot." Thus, Ms. Coulter's quest to model her life after that of Mother Teresa's continues unimpeded.
A comparison between Ms. Coulter and Mrs. Roosevelt Longworth is risible at best (although Mrs. L was a lifelong Republican and in her youth, her bursts of sour petulance were legendary). There's a genuine wit and a certain acuity to Longworth's barbs lacking not only in Coulter's words but the pettiness of Hume and Gingrich as well. Where's nuance, where's flair, where's, well, style?
Last week, as Al Gore was taking bows at the Oscars for the global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth,” a group calling itself the Tennessee Center for Policy Research released the 2006 gas and electric bills for the former veep's home and pool house -- $30,000 for almost 221,000-kilowatt hours -- twenty times the national average.
Say what you will about the baseness of the attack -- its lack of context (Gore and his wife run their offices from the house), its failure to mention all the energy-saving measures the family does indeed take, and the apparent fact that the bills at Vice President Cheney's mansion run about ten times as high. You've got to admit there's a certain level of ingenuity, enterprise and a modicum of cleverness to what this allegedly "non-partisan" organization did, in a fraternity prank sort of way.
But the round after round of "fat" jokes that ruled the airwaves after Gore's Oscar appearance? Give me a break. We are better than this.
Not that Democrats need put down their dukes in the face of sucker punches. And granted, the left isn't void of schoolyard-style name-calling, as witnessed by some of the anonymous, semi-literate trash talk you can read in the comment sections of certain blogs, chat rooms and websites. The difference is that it's not being slung by those perceived to be progressive leaders, whether in the realms of politics or media.
The crudeness of the dialogue is demeaning and snarky and wrong, reflecting a paucity of ideas and original thought that's downright demoralizing. Writing in the current issue of The Nation, Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, says we must "demand more. We need a debate on fundamentals: on our global strategy, our imperial commitments, our trade and investment policies, on how to make this economy work for working people, on how to meet threats, from Al Qaeda to climate change. We need that debate now."
The dumbing down infects every aspect of society, from the schools to the media pandering that delivers Anna Nicole and Britney naked on a plate. (And why is this gross, sadistic urge directed almost exclusively at women celebrities and not the equally messed-up, narcissistic men? Just asking.)
But all is not lost. When it comes to raising the level of American public discourse without losing your sense of humor, the mensch of the year award -- thus far -- goes not to a politician but to, of all people, a talk show host.
Craig Ferguson, of CBS' "Late, Late Show," is a recovering alcoholic who just marked 15 years of sobriety.
"I'm going to do something a little bit different tonight," he told the audience on his February 26 broadcast. Using the Britney Spears saga as a launching point, for twelve and a half minutes, with sympathy, poignancy and jokes about a "venti" glass of Christmas sherry and the 65-year-old vicar with whom he shared a room in rehab, Ferguson talked about hitting bottom, climbing back up and the struggle to stay sober.
He discussed our compulsion to too often mock the troubles of others. "I make fun of a lot of people on this show [but] at what price am I doing this stuff?" he asked. "I want to be able to be funny, but I want to be able to get some sleep...
"Comedy should have a certain amount of joy in it. It should be about always attacking the powerful people, attacking the politicians and the Trumps and the blowhards. Going after them."
Class act. You can see it at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=7bbaRyDLMvA
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York. He can be reached at the above e-mail address or in Manhattan at (212) 989-7622.
copyright 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers