Slide Shows

A history of American political slurs

From "snollygoster" to "latte liberal," partisan insults have evolved with the times. Here are some of the best

  • title=''

    Sweet Sandy Whiskers

    1836: Martin Van Buren (Democrat) vs. Four Whig Candidates

    In 1836 Martin Van Buren narrowly won the presidency against four candidates from the Whig Party, recently organized by former National Republicans. Although united in their hatred of the Jackson administration, the Whigs were unable to rally behind a national candidate. Instead, they nominated men popular in various regions.

    Van Buren’s Whig opponents attacked him in various ways. They denigrated him as illiterate, saying in campaign flyers that his “mind beats round, like a tame bear tied to a stake, in a little circle, hardly bigger than the circumference of the head in which it is placed.” They claimed he was a “dandy,” prim and fussy about his appearance. They accused him of wearing corsets and called him Sweet Sandy Whiskers because he scented his reddish whiskers.

    He was labeled the Little Magician and the Red Fox of Kinderhook (the New York town where he was born) to highlight what his enemies saw as slipperiness and lack of principle. They also coined the adjective “vanburenish” to describe someone who is evasive or uncommitted in politics. David Crockett, a former congressman who supported fellow Tennessean Hugh White, wrote about Van Buren, “It is said that at a year old he could laugh on one side of his face and cry on the other, at one and the same time.”

    Although the Van Buren campaign took a few negative swipes at the Whigs, they concentrated on organizing the voters and keeping party members loyal. Van Buren received less than 51 percent of the vote, indicating that he was not overwhelmingly popular, but Whig support was too scattered for any one candidate to gain an edge.

  • title=''

    Ignoramus Abe

    1864: Abraham Lincoln (National Union/Republican) vs. George McClellan (Democrat)

    Copperhead newspapers attacked Abraham Lincoln ceaselessly throughout his time in office. This verbal abuse reached a peak in 1864, as the country faced the challenge of a presidential election during wartime. Anti-Lincoln newspapers still frequently portrayed the president as an ignorant hick. After Lincoln and Tennessean Andrew Johnson received the Republican nomination, the New York World fulminated: “The age of statesmen is gone; the age of rail splitters … has succeeded … In a crisis of the most appalling magnitude … the country is asked to consider the claims of two ignorant, boorish, third-rate backwoods lawyers.” Ignoramus Abe was one of the nicknames flung at him. Others, as recorded by Harper’s Weekly for September 24, 1864, included Despot, Liar, Thief, Buffoon, and Old Scoundrel.

    Not only the press, but the public held Lincoln to blame for the military disasters of the past three years. Even many loyal Republicans questioned whether he should run again. The Radical Republican wing of the party also felt that he had not gone far enough to abolish slavery, and they feared that he would be too conciliatory toward the South after the war. They chose to run Fr

  • title=''

    Grant the Butcher

    1868: Ulysses Grant (Republican) vs. Horatio Seymour (Democrat)

    The 1868 presidential election was mainly about the Civil War. Although hostilities had ended three years earlier, feelings on both sides were still running high. The political parties reflected the sharp sectional differences that continued to divide the country. Republicans, “the party of Lincoln,” ran a Union war hero for president. Democrats, the party of the “solid South,” ran a Copperhead.

    While General Ulysses S. Grant was an easy choice for Republicans, the Democrats struggled through more than twenty ballots before settling on a dark horse candidate, former New York governor Horatio Seymour. Seymour was flustered by the unexpected nomination. At first he declared that he could not be a candidate. Then he became weepy and was led off the platform by his friends. Although he accepted the nomination immediately afterward, Republicans leaped gleefully on this sign of weakness, labeling Seymour the Great Decliner.

    If Seymour was surprised by the nomination, others were stunned. As a Peace Democrat during the war, Seymour had held opinions that many in the Union considered traitorous. Republican newspapers hit this note hard. They reminded voters that then-Governor Seymour had addressed the New York draft rioters with the unfortunate phrase, “My friends.” The New York Herald called Seymour “the embodiment of Copperheadism.” The New York Tribune declared that if Seymour could be elected over Grant, “the patriot blood poured out like water at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Mission Ridge and in the advance to Richmond was shed in vain.” The paper told its readers, “Scratch a Democrat and you’ll find a Rebel under his skin.”

    Seymour lived up to this reputation by running a racist campaign, accusing Grant and the Republicans of wanting to “Africanize” the South. Democrats were bitter that the army had been sent into several Southern states to enforce Reconstruction. They portrayed Grant as a would-be military dictator — “the man on horseback” — and sneered at his campaign slogan, “Let us have peace.” The Democratic vice presidential candidate Francis Blair wrote, “The peace to which Grant invites us is the peace of despotism and death.”

    Grant may have been a hero to most Northerners, but to his critics he was Grant the Butcher. They reminded voters that his battles against the Confederate Army in northern Virginia had been the bloodiest of the war. He had won, but at a terrible cost. Grant had also gained a wartime reputation as a serious alcoholic. The Democrats claimed he had been seen “drunk in the public streets” even after his nomination. Anti-Grant parades featured placards with the slogans “Grant the Butcher,” “Grant the Drunkard,” and “Grant talks peace but makes war.”

    Republicans responded with “Grant acts, Seymour talks, Blair blows.” They said that Blair was as much a drunkard as anybody, pointing to a two-day hotel bill that listed $10 for room and board and $60 for whiskey and lemons. As for Seymour, they hinted that there was insanity in the family.

    Grant refused to campaign, which led the Democrats to call him “the deaf and dumb candidate.” However, as Election Day drew near, it became clear that Grant’s status as a war hero was enough to make him popular with voters. The Democrats began to fear a landslide defeat. One faction of the party clamored for Seymour to step down in favor of Chief Justice Salmon Chase. Seymour embarked on a frantic last-minute speaking tour to build support, but to no avail. He carried only eight states.

  • title=''

    Boodlers and Snollygosters

    1884: Grover Cleveland (Democrat) vs. James G. Blaine (Republican)

    Words for scoundrels were plentiful during the Gilded Age. Beginning in the 1880s, boodlers were politicians who lined their pockets with profits from bribery, graft, and fraud. Cash that party bosses doled out to reward faithful supporters was also known as boodle.

    Boodle is an old word, adopted from New York’s early Dutch settlers. Originally it meant someone’s estate or possessions. It later evolved into underworld jargon for counterfeit money and finally into slang for ill-gotten gains in general. Such terms as boodler, boodleizing, boodle politician, and the verb to boodle were common in nineteenth-century newspaper editorials. For instance, an 1887 Nation editorial declares with exasperation, “New York is better known all over the … world for boodle Aldermen and municipal rings than for anything else.”

    By the early twentieth century the word had lost its political meaning. Boodle is now close to being obsolete, but is still used occasionally to mean any kind of contraband.

    Even less familiar than boodler these days is the fantastical coinage snollygoster. This word was popularized almost single-handedly by a Georgia Democrat named H. J. W. Ham, who traveled around the country during the 1890s with a stump speech titled “The Snollygoster in Politics.” Ham claimed to have first heard the word during an 1848 political debate. He defined a snollygoster as a “place-hunting demagogue” or a “political hypocrite.” The Columbus Dispatch for October 28, 1895, captures the spirit of the word with this more elaborate definition: “A snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnancy.”

    It’s unclear how snollygoster originated. The word may be derived from the German schnelle geister, meaning “quick spirit,” but extravagant nonsense words such as lollapalooza and splendiferous were popular during the nineteenth century. Snollygoster may simply be part of this trend.

    Snollygoster, although nearly obsolete, enjoyed a brief moment of celebrity in 2009 when British politician Richard Graham used it on his website. After a flap over questionable campaign expenditures, Graham challenged his opponent to publish his expenses “so that all Gloucester voters could see that he isn’t a snollygoster.”

  • title=''

    His Accidency

    1904: Theodore Roosevelt (Republican) vs. Alton Parker (Democrat)

    Mark Hanna’s worst fears were realized on September 6, 1901, when an anarchist shot President McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He died eight days later, and Roosevelt assumed the presidency. Hanna was bitter about the turn of events. H. H. Kohlsaat, editor of the Chicago Times-Herald, recalls speaking with him on McKinley’s funeral train. Hanna fumed, “I told William McKinley it was a mistake to nominate that wild man at Philadelphia … Now look, that damned cowboy is president of the United States.”

    Those dismayed by “that wild man’s” ascent to the presidency referred to him as His Accidency. This dismissive phrase was first applied to John Tyler when he inherited the presidency from William Henry Harrison in 1841. Accidency is a rarely used word for a chance happening.

    Roosevelt deeply resented this title. He was determined to run again and be elected in his own right. The Republican leadership would have preferred a more conventional candidate, but the voters loved his unorthodox style. The New York Sun expressed what many people felt about him with their famously succinct, back-handed endorsement. The five-word editorial declared: “Theodore! With all thy faults.”

    The 1904 election was fairly colorless. Roosevelt adhered to the principle that sitting presidents don’t campaign. His opponent Alton Parker, chief justice of the New York Court of Appeals, was a deeply reserved man who didn’t travel and made only a handful of campaign speeches. He couldn’t begin to compete with the popular Roosevelt. Parker carried only thirteen states, all of them in the South.

    On election night, when the returns showed that Roosevelt had won an overwhelming victory, the president turned to his wife and remarked, “My dear, I am no longer a political accident.” He was still savoring his triumph a few days later when Republican politician Joseph Benson Foraker called to pay his respects. Foraker recalls in his memoirs, “When I was ushered into his office he walked forward briskly to shake hands and welcome me. In doing so he announced with manifest satisfaction, ‘You are shaking hands with His Excellency, not His Accidency.’”

  • title=''

    The Lunatic Fringe

    1912: Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) vs. William Taft (Republican) vs. Theodore Roosevelt (Bull Moose) vs. Eugene Debs (Socialist)

    Lunatic fringe is another of Theodore Roosevelt’s memorable contributions to the language, although he first used it to talk about art rather than politics. In a review of the New York City Armory’s 1913 exhibit of modernist art, he wrote, “We have to face the fact that there is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement. In this recent art exhibition the lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and Futurists.”

    Lunatic fringe was quickly adopted as a political term. One writer who chronicled Roosevelt’s own Bull Moose convention remembers, “Among those highly wrought individualists, the delegates … the ‘lunatic fringe’ was often plainly in view.”

  • title=''

    The Kangaroo Ticket

    1932: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat) vs. Herbert Hoover (Republican)

    Many Democratic Party chiefs considered New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt a weak choice in 1932. He had run as James Cox’s vice presidential candidate in 1920 but did not have the strong track record of some other presidential hopefuls, including Al Smith, who wanted to run again. It took four votes and aggressive behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get Roosevelt nominated.

    H. L. Mencken commented, “Here was a great convention … nominating the weakest candidate before it. How many of the delegates were honestly for him I don’t know, but … [t]here was absolutely nothing in his record to make them eager for him.” Political commentator Walter Lippmann described Roosevelt contemptuously as “an amiable boy scout.”

    The choice of John Nance Garner, Speaker of the House, for the second spot on the ticket exacerbated the problem. The popular Texan was much better known and more experienced than Roosevelt. One disappointed Texas colleague complained, “It’s a kangaroo ticket. Stronger in the hindquarters than in the front.”

    With a platform that promised unemployment relief, sweeping programs to put people back to work, stock market regulation, and the repeal of Prohibition, anyone the Democrats ran would almost certainly have been elected in 1932. The embattled Republicans were stuck with Hoover, who insisted on running again.

    The president was now so disliked that audiences often booed him when he made public appearances.

    The Republicans did their best, attacking Roosevelt as a radical and a socialist. Hoover predicted economic ruin if the Democratic ticket was elected, saying “grass would grow in the streets of one hundred cities.” Republicans also questioned whether Roosevelt was healthy enough to be president — polio had left him paralyzed from the waist down since 1921. Roosevelt answered his critics with a vigorous cross-country campaign, giving dozens of speeches in front of cheering crowds. He told them, “My policy is as radical as American liberty, as radical as the Constitution.”

    Americans were obviously convinced. Nearly 58 percent of voters went for the kangaroo ticket.

  • title=''

    The Little Man on the Wedding Cake

    1944: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat) vs. Thomas E. Dewey (Republican)

    In 1944, with the country engulfed in World War II, Democrats took it for granted that Roosevelt would run for a fourth term and he agreed to accept the nomination if the party wanted him. The delegates nominated him on the first ballot. The Republicans selected Thomas E. Dewey, the young first-term governor of New York, who was also chosen almost unanimously on the first ballot.

    Dewey was a short, tidy-looking man with black center-parted hair and a toothbrush moustache. He acquired the disparaging nickname of the Little Man on the Wedding Cake. Strangely, the label was apparently invented by a member of his own party. It is most often attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter. (Longworth was a lifelong Republican. She didn’t like her distant cousin Franklin and didn’t vote for him.)

    According to a July 10, 1944, Time article reporting on the Republican convention, “Alice Longworth … gave currency to the mot of the Convention: ‘How can you vote for a man who looks like the bridegroom on a wedding cake?’” Longworth later told columnist William Safire that she did not coin the phrase. In a letter answering his query she explained that she first heard it from another woman at the convention. She wrote, “I thought it frightfully funny and quoted it to everyone. Then it began to be attributed to me.”

    Dewey’s manner reinforced this unflattering image. He had a fussy speaking style, using exclamations like good gracious. He sometimes ended a sentence by saying, “period.” He was also stiff and unfriendly with newsmen, many of whom repeated the wedding cake comment to his detriment. It’s doubtful whether looking like a miniature bridegroom was a major factor in Dewey’s failure to get elected, but the assault on his dignity surely had some negative effect.

  • title=''

    Eggheads

    1952: Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican) vs. Adlai Stevenson (Democrat)

    Adlai Stevenson was an articulate man who gave information-packed speeches. He gained the reputation of being an intellectual, or as his Republican opponents contemptuously put it, an “egghead.” The word had been around since the early twentieth century. It suggests that people with extra-large brains have high-domed, egg-shaped foreheads.

    New York Herald Tribune columnist Stewart Alsop first applied the term to Stevenson. In his September 27, 1952, column, Alsop described a conversation he had while attending a Stevenson speech on atomic energy. He had remarked to “a rising young Connecticut Republican” sitting near him that many intelligent people who usually voted Republican seemed to admire Stevenson. The reply was, “Sure, all the egg-heads love Stevenson. But how many egg-heads do you think there are?” Alsop then posed the question, “How many people, not egg-heads themselves, admire and would vote for such an obvious ‘egg-head’ as Adlai Stevenson?” The implied answer is, “not many.”

    Stevenson joked about the nickname, declaiming during one speech, “Eggheads of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your yolks!” Nonetheless, his perceived eggheadedness was a problem for his campaign, especially contrasted with Ike’s relaxed “everyman” style. Although Eisenhower complained that his campaign managers presented him as someone who didn’t have a brain in his head, the voters obviously preferred his short, upbeat remarks over Stevenson’s lengthy disquisitions.

    During the 1950s and 1960s egghead was a common putdown of the intellectually or culturally serious, a slangier version of high-brow. The word is not as popular now as it was in Stevenson’s day, but it still occasionally appears in print.

  • title=''

    Pointy-Headed Bureaucrats

    1968: Richard Nixon (Republican) vs. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) vs. George Wallace (American Independent)

    Unlike Humphrey, American Independent candidate George Wallace seemed to enjoy trading full-throated insults with hecklers. His favorite target was the “over-educated, ivory-tower folks with pointed heads” who looked down their noses at average Americans like Wallace and his supporters. An issue of Science that appeared shortly before the election noted, “Hardly a day goes by that Wallace fails to speak of ‘pointy-headed professors who can’t park their bicycles straight.’” This tactic evidently worked. Wallace captured 13 percent of the vote, winning five southern states.

    Pointy heads was already a slang term for people with below-normal intelligence, presumably because their heads were too narrow to accommodate a full-size brain. Wallace applied the label to intellectual types who he believed were lacking in common sense, especially the bureaucrats running Washington. By the end of the 1968 campaign pointy-headed bureaucrats had become a common term.

    Pointy heads has remained a popular insult, especially on the political right. Ironically, it has lost its “subnormal” connotation and now simply refers to any highly educated or scholarly person.

  • title=''

    Latte Liberals and Wingnuts

    2000: George W. Bush (Republican) vs. Al Gore (Democrat)

    Until the late twentieth century, liberal was a descriptive term for someone who favors government action to solve communal problems. Beginning in the late 1980s, conservatives made a practice of treating the word as a pejorative. Earlier opponents of liberalism had sometimes paired it with adjectives such as bleeding heart and knee-jerk to suggest that liberal positions were based on emotions. In the 1980s, critics took a different approach with contemptuous (usually alliterative) phrases such as latte liberal, limousine liberal, and Lexus liberal.

    These labels implied that although liberals espoused populist views, they were cultural elitists, out of touch with regular folks. Similar to the early twentieth century’s parlor pink, these terms convey the notion that liberals talk the talk while enjoying comforts like fancy coffee drinks and upscale cars.

    Soon, left-leaning politicians were avoiding what became known as the L-word. During the 1988 campaign Bush joked about his opponent’s refusal to own up to the “L-word label.” When Dukakis finally did make a statement declaring himself a liberal in the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, the Boston Globe featured it as headline news: “Dukakis Uses L-Word.” Liberals began adopting progressive as a preferred term.

    In the mid-1990s wingnut was invented to insult those on the other end of the political spectrum — short for right-wing nut. Like latte liberals, wingnuts are assigned a range of stereotypical features, such as a tendency to listen to right-wing talk radio programs while driving their gun-rack-equipped pickup trucks to antigovernment rallies. Wingnut is also occasionally used to describe someone who is nutty in areas other than politics.

  • title=''

    Getting Thrown Under the Bus

    2008: Barack Obama (Democrat) vs. John McCain (Republican)

    When Reverend Jeremiah Wright continued to appear on television and provide news commentators with colorful sound bites, Obama was moved to distance himself from his former pastor. He repudiated Wright’s remarks during a press conference and later announced that he and his wife had resigned their membership in Wright’s church. Although many commentators approved of Obama’s actions, others accused the candidate of throwing his onetime friend under the bus.

    Under the bus was first used in a nonpolitical context. One of its earliest print appearances is in a September 7, 1984, Washington Post interview with singer Cyndi Lauper by David Remnick. Remnick begins, “In the rock ‘n’ roll business, you are either on the bus or under it.” He may have been thinking of the familiar command that sports coaches give their team when they’re about to leave for the big game — be on the bus or under it. In other words, get with the program or risk being flattened. Actually getting thrown under the bus is a more brutal fate — a betrayal by a fellow team member. Thrown under the bus began appearing in print in the early 1990s.

    When the expression popped up during the Wright controversy, news commentators embraced it. Any evidence of conflict was seen as a possible incident of flinging someone under the wheels. Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, speaking on an April 2008 segment of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program, estimated that throw under the bus had appeared in more than four hundred press stories about the campaign.

    It remains popular in political commentary circles, perhaps because it encompasses so much of what politics is about. After all, under the bus is where you find the mud.