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Political Comebacks: The Art of the Putdown

Politicians are known for delivering a scripted message. Those who stray far from their prepared remarks often find themselves in trouble. But a select few who dare can make a point with quick wit.

Daniel Webster, the 19th century orator, had this to say when offered the vice presidency: "I do not propose to be buried until I am dead."

That's one of the quips from a collection called, I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns and Ripostes.

The title comes from a particularly biting comment from a master of political wit, Winston Churchill.

As the book's editor, Chris Lamb, warns, political sparring is not for the faint of heart.

"The wit here is very mean-spirited," Lamb tells Renee Montagne. "A good comeback ... you want to leave your opponent red-faced and stammering and left [to] sort of pick up the pieces of their manhood in a thimble and go skulking off in silence."

Churchill makes frequent appearances in the book. The British prime minister "could be so cruel and he would use his humor definitely as a weapon," Lamb says.

Such as in this exchange with Nancy Astor, an American-born politician in England:

Astor once shouted at Churchill, "If you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee."

His response: "If I were your husband, I'd drink it."

During one of his campaigns against President Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson was approached by a supporter.

"Governor, every thinking person will be voting for you," she told Stevenson.

"Madam, that's not enough," he replied. "I need a majority."

Lamb says only a small group of politicians are good at the witty comeback. "It comes probably through seasoning, it comes from paying attention, and it comes perhaps from a heart that's a little darker than others," he says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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