By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 25, 2006
If one will be remembered for a single remark, as the recently departed Lloyd Bentsen is, let it be for the perfect put-down. Most of us never get to experience the joy of excoriating an opponent with a dead-on, devastating riposte. We always think of it too late.
When Bentsen told a baby-faced Dan Quayle, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," he was following in the tradition of expert quipsters Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Winston Churchill, whose lines are still remembered. Perfect put-downs transcend their settings. In politics, the successful put-down supersedes any issues of substance, just as on the playground. There are certain yo-momas from which no one can recover.
Ronald Reagan was good at these.
"There you go again," he said in a 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, accusing the president of misrepresenting his record. The line was accompanied by a smile and a patronizing shake of the head, and the audience laughed, sealing the deal. Reagan: 1, Carter: 0.
Those of us who rely on reason to vanquish our opponents find the perfect put-down infuriating. The put-down changes the terms of the debate; it replaces sober analysis with humor. It makes things personal. Anyone who was given a cutting nickname in seventh grade knows you can't argue with the perfect put-down. It's not a matter of what's right; it's a matter of perception, and you're stuck with it now.
For instance, after her breakup with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman appeared on David Letterman's show and was asked how she was doing.
"Well, I can wear heels now," she replied.
During a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, Reagan, then 73, was asked -- delicately -- if he was too old.
"Not at all," he replied. Then: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
The perfect put-down is a checkmate, and the smart opponent -- like Mondale -- will laugh and concede the round.
Context is everything. The perfect put-down must be spontaneous, or at least seem so. It should be pithy and well timed. It can be surprising for its cleverness or merely for its bluntness (as in Rhett Butler's final diss to the self-centered Scarlett: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn").
The perfect put-down has, frankly, little to do with the facts at hand -- just as Reagan could form an effective rebuttal out of his opponent's relative youth, so a young fellow named Alcibiades could demolish an opponent for his age. In a book called "Viva la Repartee," author Mardy Grothe recounts how sometime in the 5th century B.C., Alcibiades debated his uncle, the Greek leader Pericles.
"When I was your age, Alcibiades, I talked just the way you are now talking," Pericles said.
Alcibiades' reply: "If only I had known you, Pericles, when you were at your best."
One-liners can be devastating, but the beauty of Bentsen's put-down was the way it built rhythmically on itself through repetition and short, declarative sentences. In the 1988 vice presidential debate, Quayle, 41, had just finished comparing himself to Kennedy on the matter of experience.
"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy," Bentsen started, and viewers couldn't help but notice the visual difference between the two men -- Quayle's boyishness and Bentsen's gray-haired, patrician looks. "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine . Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Snap!
We don't feel bad for victims of verbal violence if we feel in some way they deserve it. "American Idol's" Simon Cowell is in best form when he insults performers who think too much of themselves, because pride is right up there with hypocrisy on America's list of Things We Hate Most. That's why the put-down is best as a rejoinder to another, weaker put-down. There's a classic one of these about Churchill -- possibly apocryphal, but so good it bears repeating.
A woman supposedly told him, "If I were your wife, I would poison your coffee."
Churchill replied, "If I were your husband, I would drink it."
Delivery is everything, as the writers for the recently finished TV show "Will & Grace" understood so well. The put-downs on "Will & Grace" had a Wildean sensibility, an arched-eyebrow coolness. As the gay character Jack explains to a fellow who has just come out of the closet in season 5, "[W]hen you say something witty at a party, you should always appear bored, take a sip of your drink, and look away. That way, it'll seem like it happens all the time."
We know how hard it is to come up with the perfect put-down. In MTV's insult-fest, "Yo Momma," two people hurl cruel jokes at each other, and few of the lines hit the mark.
We admire those who are witty all the time, even if we don't want to get too close. It was said of literary wit Dorothy Parker that her friends feared leaving the room because of what she might say about them.
Once, upon hearing that a writer she knew was always kind to her inferiors, Parker barked back: "And where does she find them?"