The Art of Political Put Down

19 05 2011

Category: Politics

This is a cross-post from Rathbone Vision’s Blog

J. Danforth Quayle & John F. Kennedy

These short video clips demonstrate the finest of that delicate art form; the political put down. The two clips go together like love and marriage, a horse and carriage and they are from a political lifetime ago.

Maybe they seem like a dated indulgence, but the are not. They are masterpieces of put down: Subtle, finely wrought, and hiding their artistry.

Clip 1 – Senator Lloyd Bentsen v Senator J. Danforth Quayle, vice presidential debate 1988

It’s the twilight years of the Reagan administration. After 8 years he’s standing aside, as he has to, to let his Vice President, George Bush Sr have a crack at the Oval Office. To introduce an element of youth and glamour to the ticket Bush Sr selects Dan Quayle as his running mate. To someone outside the American system it might seem a strange choice; a political lightweight who, it turned out, was unable to spell the word potato.

To that bemused onlooker, I have two words: Sarah and Palin. And it didn’t seem to do Bush any harm in the 1988 election. He, and Vice President J. Danforth Quayle, won.

Quayle’s opponent is Senate veteran Lloyd Bentsen, on the ticket to lend gravitas to Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. By the time of this debate the perceived  strengths and weaknesses of the candidates were already established: Bentsen was too old, and Quayle was too young and inexperienced to take over the presidency if it became necessary.

Quayle’s campaign had tried to counter that with a fact: Quayle had more congressional experience than President Kennedy had before he assumed his presidency. Quayle was likely to mention this during the debate. As well as being a fact, Quayle’s team were hoping that the youth of their candidate would attract something of the Kennedy glamour. They were working with different raw materials.

Bentsen’s team prepared him with this grenade if and when Quayle raised the topic. I don’t know who wrote the lines, but their delivery, seemingly off the cuff but anything but, is absolutely, completely, and sublimely, perfect. Watch it, then read on.

Senator (pause) I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, (pause) Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, (pause) Senator you’re no Jack Kennedy.

Quayle can’t even look at Bentsen during this, and when it comes, the final phrase is a knockout line. All in one sentence: 19 words, 8 of which are Jack Kennedy.

Shakespeare was never delivered with such exquisite precision. Muhammad Ali never set up as clinical a knockout. Watch it again, and again and again. It is perfection. He doesn’t just dismiss him, absolutely, he reclaims for himself the Kennedy connection with all it’s good vibes.

Rather than retire, beaten, and move on to policy where he might score some points Quayle makes a fatal error. He tries to fight back. But he has nothing prepared and no ammunition of his own.

That was uncalled for Senator.’  He says like a schoolboy about to cry. Exactly like a schoolboy about to burst into tears.

Bentsen can’t believe his luck. Quayle has walked naively, cockily, into one trap and now here he is setting himself up again. The old pro does not let the opportunity slip. He’s way too wiley for that.

You’re the one that was making the comparison, Senator

He holds the ‘s’ of senator, just a little, just enough. He’s saying senator but he means sonny and that’s what we hear. Our ears register senator but our brains process sonny. How on earth does that even work? It gets no better than this exchange.

Clip 2 – 1992 Republican Convention former president Ronald Reagan

Reagan recognises a good line when he hears one. Reagan’s speech writers need to come up with a good line. So they adopt the Democrats’ one. This is Tai Chi put down; use your opponent’s strength against himself.

Bill Clinton, or William Jefferson Clinton (who as a youngster actually met President Kennedy) is being compared to Founding Father Thomas Jefferson; time for some rewriting of the Democrats’ own material, drawing in the factor that had dogged Reagan’s own campaigns – his age.

This fellow they’ve nominated claims he’s the new Thomas Jefferson. Well, let me tell you something, I knew Thomas Jefferson. He was a friend of mine, and Governor, you’re no Thomas Jefferson.

The script is excellent, but watch the video to see how important delivery is. It’s not just witty, and clever, and funny, but by reframing the Democrats own put down it takes some of the sting from Bentsen’s original lines. It may be a presidential campaign later, but it probably needed that time to make it work better. And boy does it work.

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