John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, September 11, 2009

Congress has a lot to learn

There was a brief brouhaha this week after the gentleman from South Carolina blurted, “You lie!” during the president’s address to Congress, with much pious commentary about decorum. Defenders of the gentleman from South Carolina reminded us that Democrats had booed President George W. Bush on more than one occasion — a defense rather like “those other kids did it first.”

What has been lost in this largely pointless exchange — and distraction from the national issue of health care ostensibly under discussion — is the pathetic feebleness of Congressional invective. “Boo!” and “You lie!” in the legislative body where the puissant John Randolph of Roanoke once commented that a prominent figure “shines and stinks like a rotten mackerel by moonlight.” (It is thought that Mr. Randolph was referring to Henry Clay.)

At Language Log, they are celebrating the invective of Paul Keating, the former prime minister of Australia whose comments in Parliament identified his opponents as, among other things, harlots, blackguards, brain-damaged, dullards, fools and incompetents, perfumed gigolos, unrepresentative swill, and stunned mullets. A commenter added this picturesque item:

One of Paul Keating's best insults came when he was berating the leader of the Country Party, who came from a family of undertakers. He described him as a man who had ‘accrued his wealth by stealing the pennies from the eyes of the dead.’*

When will the Republic elect legislators who can meet this lofty standard?

*Iambic hexameter. Classy.


  1. Soon, I hope.
    Soon, I pray.
    Today could not be soon enough.

    Perhaps Congress can return to the days of striking each other with walking sticks.

    What should give us pause is that two words dominate the reporting on the speech, not the thousands of words contained in the speech.

    Let's toughen up our skins, friends.

  2. Ah ha ha ha ha.

    I vote for the walking sticks! I'd start watching CNN for that.

    The only way our legislators could come close to meeting that lofty standard (which would really be good entertainment) would be if they were editors, college professors, and the like (or really well read).

    Hey, maybe the kiddies encouraged by our president will grow up to be highly educated legislators. Now I have something to live for.

  3. Maybe I'm reading it wrong, but that line doesn't seem to scan. I see two or three iambs, while all the rest have extra unstressed syllables.

  4. The British Parliament has an iron-clad rule that no member is allowed to call another a liar in the chamber. They can and do accuse each other of all sorts of shady dealings, idiocy, and so on, but to suggest that someone has lied is totally beyond the pale.

  5. I'm not sure the hullaballoo at "town hall" meetings with legislators or its echo at the joint session of Congress are as devoid of literary merit as we might have imagined.

    In fact, I think I hear a distinct reference to a passage in a classic work by one of the modern masters of English lit (to wit):

    "Four legs good! Two legs baaaaaad!"

    But perhaps I am overthinking this.

  6. The Houses of Parliament also contains an anteroom containing loops of fabric, one per MP, which they may safely use to store their swords or pistols. (The Sergeant-at-Arms and his crew can and do go armed, of course.)

  7. The House of Commons stipulates that before calling anyone anything, it must be prefaced with "The Honorable Member from St Mary Mead" as in : The Honorable Member from St Mary Mead is a perfumed gigolo and an unrepresentative swill." O excellent excellent egg!! Where o where is Mr Keating when we need him?