The insult assault

Wowee-zowee! Breaking news! In the midst of all his crises — like the government shutdown and an impending debt default that could humiliate the nation he leads — President Barack Obama told an Associated Press interviewer that if he owned the Washington NFL team, he would “think about changing” its name.

As you can tell, I’m among those who won’t use the R-word to describe the franchise symbol anymore, since it’s a vicious pejorative, a deeply offensive way to describe Native Americans. Even though owner Dan Snyder recently insisted to USA Today, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps,” and even though polls show that a full two-thirds of the Washington R-words’ fans don’t want any change, it’s going to happen sooner or later. Even league Commissioner Roger Goodell has changed his tune and now says, “If one person’s offended, we have to listen.” So let’s talk about the single most appropriate new name: That, of course, would be the Washington Politicians. What a turnabout that would be, to switch from a term that offends an entire ethnic group to a slur against the team.

The real politicians are a real embarrassment to most Americans, although we deserve it, since we elected them. Now we’re paying the price when they’re not even able to do their most basic government functions, like keeping the government operating, for instance, and taking the rudimentary steps necessary to prevent the country they claim to love from sliding into international shame for not paying its bills.

Instead, they engage in trash talk, putting each other down. On the 25th anniversary of Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle during a debate “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” I was on MSNBC discussing political insults. Frankly, today’s are pathetic, juvenile. Sorry folks, “wacko bird” is puny, Harry Reid’s calling John Boehner a “coward” lacks any class whatsoever, particularly when we look back at political history’s really great insulters. Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone back in 19th-century England had a rivalry that was remarkable for its bitterness. Disraeli loved to mock Gladstone. “The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this,” he said, “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. If someone dragged him out, that would be a calamity.” Disraeli definitely was not a slouch, describing an Irish politician as someone who had “committed every crime that does not require courage.”

We don’t have to go that far back for some of the classics, like the one from the late Ann Richards, who belittled George W. Bush as a man who “was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Some of the best have a real soft touch. Ronald Reagan was the master. When he was debating Jimmy Carter, he was able to draw blood by simply answering Carter’s criticisms with “There you go again.” When you think about it, those were fighting words, but how could anyone get really upset with them. Of course, Mr. Reagan was the target of quite a few nasties himself. One of the most gentle came from his Republican rival Gerald Ford, who once brought up rumors that Reagan’s hair color was somewhat, uh, enhanced. “He doesn’t dye his hair,” Ford insisted, “He’s just prematurely orange.”

Go back a little further, and we can turn to Will Rogers, and further still to Mark Twain for slams that have stood the test of time. Rogers described Congress as “the best that money can buy” in the 1930s, but it’s even more true today. And what about this from Twain: “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

It’s fair to say our modern leaders are looking mighty idiotic, to say nothing of nasty. So sure, let’s change the football team’s name from the R word to “Politicians.” Both symbolize hatefulness that is insulting, to say the least.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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