The decline of political wit, and the death of the stylish insult

 Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, gives his famous V-sign, as he drives through cheering inhabitants of the town of Metz, in France, on July 14, 1946. (AP Photo)

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, gives his famous V-sign, as he drives through cheering inhabitants of the town of Metz, in France, on July 14, 1946. (AP Photo)

This July will mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen — so this year is surely a fitting time to reflect on a subject beloved and much discussed by the author: manners and wit.

In Jane Austen’s “Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders,” she focuses on etiquette and social behavior in the early 1800s. “It’s very difficult for the prosperous to be humble,” she said, and “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”

Austen was clearly a fan of a well-rendered barb, as long as it had that sheen of wit and good manners. But she didn’t have the last word on the subject. In the 20th century a rather less genteel form sprouted, such as Dorothy Parker’s remark upon the death of the dour President Calvin Coolidge: “How could they tell?”

Nineteenth century wit Mark Twain, who responded to grave rumors of illness by writing “The report of my death was an exaggeration,” had as high an opinion of Congress then as most Americans do now. “Reader,” he once wrote, “suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

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And today, P.J. O’Rourke, in his book on the 2016 election “How the Hell Did This Happen?” writes that some terms mean one thing to Republicans and another to Democrats. For example: “right-wing talk radio and Fox News” stand in as “accurate and truthful reporting” to a conservative, while a liberal might define it as “the voices people hear when they aren’t taking their meds.”

But Austen would have been appalled by GOP Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s 2009 address to the U.S. Congress on health care. Or, closer to her own times, Teddy Roosevelt’s comments that president William McKinley “had no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.”

The U.S. government has made attempts at regulating civility. Yet Sen. Elizabeth Warren was bizarrely called out by Republicans under No. 19 of Standing Rules of the Senate (“No Senator in debate shall directly or indirectly by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator”) for simply quoting from Coretta Scott King as she debated against the appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

According to a study by Weber Shandwick, 72 percent of Americans view today’s political world as uncivil — and the absence of civility appears to be having an impact on participation and interest in the political process among broad swaths of the public. Almost half of the population tunes out government and politics, and almost two-thirds of those cite the general tone and level of civility as a major factor in their decision.

I wonder if Americans would have such a low opinion of their leaders’ conduct if those leaders were at least more clever about it.

This is not just an American phenomenon. A manual for honorable members of Britain’s Parliament states that “good temper and moderation are the hallmarks of political exchange. Insulting, coarse or abusive language, imputation of false motives, charges of lying or being drunk are Simply Not Done.”

Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman to hold a seat in the British House of Commons, was known for her exchanges with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He is supposed to have told her that having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom.

“You’re not handsome enough to have such fears,” she is said to have replied.

She also told him once that, if she were his wife, she’d put poison in his tea, to which he responded, “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”

Churchill of course was a unique source of political wit and repartee, describing his opponent Clement Atlee as a “sheep in sheep’s clothing” or, given the proscription against accusations of lying, accusing a fellow politician of “terminological inexactitude.”

And will we ever again see the likes of this exchange?

A British member of Parliament said to 19th century Prime Minister 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? Certainly the straitjacket of e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter might militate against florid and witty and even barbed responses. Or perhaps it’s the decline of an education based upon literature and language and rhetoric.

Or perhaps it’s just plain loss of innocence and the fact that we’ve become inured to crassness. The first time the “F” word was uttered on BBC television was in 1965 — by the brilliant and eccentric theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. The event occasioned four motions in the House of Commons attacking him. Today, the ubiquitous word has become a noun, verb, and expletive of choice.

Is there a chance that we might find a latter day Cicero, the brilliant Roman orator described by one of his contemporaries as having not the name of a man but of eloquence itself? Maybe, but perhaps wit is somewhat in the ear of the listener, and of the times in which it takes place; it ebbs and flows from the gentle gibes of Jane Austen to the more coarse and caustic insults of her successors.

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