Twenty years ago, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush selected little-known Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle to be his running mate. The youthful Quayle tried to dismiss concerns about his inexperience saying that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy did when he sought the presidency in 1960.
Quayle’s advisers cautioned him against using the JFK comparison when he debated Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, but on Oct. 5, 1988, Quayle compared himself to Kennedy during a nationally televised debate. When it was Bentsen’s turn to respond, he turned to Quayle and calmly said, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
The ability to deliver a sharp riposte has long been a potent political weapon. John Wilkes, the 18th-century British political reformer, was engaged in a hostile exchange with a bitter rival, John Montagu, who shouted, “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox.” To which Wilkes responded, “That, sir, depends on whether I embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistress.”
To this day, no one has delivered a comeback so devastating, though some, like Winston Churchill, have come close. As the story goes, Churchill was involved in a testy exchange with Nancy Astor, a member of Parliament. At one point, Astor snapped, “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill replied, “If you were my wife, Nancy, I’d drink it.” Churchill did not merely want to silence Astor, he wanted her to remember the exchange and keep it in mind if she ever considered challenging him again.
Few politicians practiced the art of the political put-down as well as Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings. During a 1986 debate between Hollings and his Republican challenger, Henry McMaster, McMaster inexplicably challenged Hollings, then in his 70s, to take a drug test. “I’ll take a drug test,” Hollings snapped, “if you’ll take an I.Q. test.”
Such exchanges are rare today, in part, because politics is more scripted. But such exchanges have always been rare because the best comeback lines require at least four qualities — a good ear, a nimble mind, a sharp sense of humor, and good timing.
Unlike negative ads, which are sucker punches, sharply worded comeback lines are counter punches. They require that someone else strike the first blow. The best comeback lines, therefore, are spontaneous, or at least appear to be spontaneous. Churchill understood the secret behind the spontaneous comeback. “All the best off-the-cuff remarks,” he said, “are prepared days beforehand.” With this in mind, Democratic and Republican advisers should be carefully watching their opponent’s speeches.
Both McCain and Obama delivered memorable comeback lines during the primaries.
During a debate among Republican hopefuls in January, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who had modified his positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and other issues prior to seeking the party’s nomination, insisted that he was the GOP’s “candidate of change.” A chuckling McCain responded, “I just want to say to Gov. Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues. But I agree you are the candidate of change.”
In December, during a debate among Democratic Party hopefuls, Obama was asked how he could create a significantly different foreign policy, given that several of his advisers once worked for President Bill Clinton. “I want to hear that,” Sen. Hillary Clinton chimed in, provoking laughter. Obama paused for a moment and then replied, “Well, Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.”
It was Obama, of course, who got the last laugh.
Chris Lamb, a professor of communication at the College of Charleston, is the author of “I’ll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.