This worries me.
The New York Times, reporting on Mitt Romney’s debate prep, notes that “Mr. Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August. His strategy includes luring the president into appearing smug or evasive about his responsibility for the economy.”
Nothing strikes fear into the heart of the casual debate listener like the phrase “Mitt Romney has been practicing a series of zingers on his aides since August.”
This conjures up horrifying visions.
“Nice weather today, Mitt.”
“So’s your old man!”
“The press corps seems to be talking about you a great deal.”
“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about!”
“We need to go over this speech if you have a minute.”
“Oh yeah? Well, you’re ugly! And tomorrow I will be sober!”
Does anyone else have this vivid image of Mitt Romney in a bunker carefully committing schoolyard taunts to memory?
“President Obama, it is such a good thing that your wife, the first lady, is working on an initiative to combat obesity, because your mama is fat, or at least was so while she lived.”
“Mr. Obama, it is — too bad that I am going to work to repeal Obamacare, because your mother is so fat that she, she could really use, uh, the care.”
“Mr. Obama, your mother is so ugly, that, that it would sound unpresidential if I detailed her physical shortcomings.”
As someone who, at an early age, committed a book of witty quotations to memory, I can vouch that this does little to enhance your appeal.
Fran Lebowitz said “The opposite of talking is not listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” This is true in general. When you have a prepared quip to unleash, it amounts practically to physical pain.
No one seems to understand the play you are trying to set up. “Say, ‘I walked past your house yesterday,’ ” you prompt people.
“Huh?” they say.
“Say, ‘I walked past your house.’ ”
“ ‘I walked past your house,’ ” they say, dubiously.
“Thank you!” you shout.
“Sure,” they say.
“No,” you say. “I was thanking you for walking past my house! It was a zinger!”
“Oh,” they say, inching away slowly. “A zinger. Right.”
This does not discourage you.
“Carla’s going through a really difficult time,” someone says.
“Difficult?” you bellow. “I wish it were impossible!”
Everyone frowns at you.
“Samuel Johnson said this about a violin solo in the 18th century,” you explain. “Everyone thought it was amusing.” A hush descends. “If you were my wife, I’d drink it!” you add. It is a knee-jerk reflex. You cannot help it. These things have gotten into your bloodstream.
I love a good zinger as much as the next girl, but I can vouch that many of them worked only once, at a dinner party sometime in the 1890s, and then never again.
“I can talk about any subject,” you say. “Ask me. Ask me anything. Any subject.”
“Uh,” they say, “fracking.”
“You said, ‘Any subject.’ ”
You shake your head. “Say, ‘The Queen.’ ”
“You said any subject. The Queen is not a subject!”
“THAT’S MY LINE!” you yell, flipping over a table.
I can only assume that something like this will occur at the debate.
The whole point of zingers is that you are supposed to come up with them on the spot. That is their charm. Most of us only come up with the perfect retort when we are halfway down in the elevator. “You look like a million too!” you shout. “All green and wrinkled!”
But now, even if Mitt does manage a spectacular comeback, the bloom will be gone. It’s an insult in itself. “Mitt Romney has spent the past two months memorizing spontaneous comebacks.”
Nothing like prepared spontaneity. It is jumbo shrimp: a contradiction in terms, and just as chilly and squishy.