Even insults went retro this year

Published December 26, 2004

The most heartening language trend of 2004 was the revival of the old-fashioned insult.

When MSNBC's Chris Matthews, sitting in the safety of his studio, had some tough questions for U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., after Miller's over-the-top keynote address at the Republican National Convention, Miller went all Aaron Burr on him: "I wish I was over there, where I could get a little closer into your face. . . . I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel."

Miller was giving away about 20 years and 90 pounds to Matthews. But Miller's crazed stare - he looked like Granny Clampett training her shotgun on a stray varmint - was enough to cause even the overbearing Matthews to back off.

The performance won Miller, who is retiring from the Senate, a job at the Fox News Channel, which apparently had not yet reached its quota of scary gasbags.

While ol' Zell was channeling our more rakish Founding Fathers, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms was reaching even further back in time for her rhetorical inspiration.

Upset by repeated noise violations at Clear Channel Entertainment's Ford Amphitheatre, Storms cast this chilling imprecation: "A bane upon them. May the worms of your avarice consume your intestines, Clear Channel."

Storms' old-school invective sounded like some dread mix of Osama bin Laden ("Humiliation for America the infidel and its allies") and Carnac the Magnificent ("May a diseased yak squat in your hot tub").

It must have been enough to send Clear Channel executives running to the mirror to see if they had been turned into toads, as if they'd be able to tell.

Storms is great when she picks on people bigger than she is. Unfortunately, she more often afflicts the afflicted, turning her sharp tongue on the homeless, the medically indigent and other troubled souls whose problems complicate the life of a county commissioner.

Vice President Dick Cheney wasn't as eloquent as Storms, but he, too, laid down some old-school trash talk when he bumped into Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., during the Senate's annual class photo session and told him, apparently without immediate provocation, to "Go f--- yourself."

Cheney inspired humorist/historian Henry Beard to write an article in which he claimed Thomas Jefferson once told a political opponent to "put it in that intimate nether locality where the sun, for all its refulgent luminosity, is not wont to shine."

That, in turn, apparently inspired Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the Democratic presidential nominee, to break from her normal campaign itinerary in July long enough to tell an editor from a right-wing Pittsburgh newspaper to "shove it."

Cheney and Heinz Kerry win points for bluntness. But in some circumstances, etiquette - and sheer survival - dictates that you only think obscene thoughts while you scramble for something better to say.

When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld found himself surrounded by several hundred troops wanting to know why they were forced to scrounge for "hillbilly armor" to protect themselves in Iraq, he didn't tell them to shove anything. Instead, he took a moment to compose himself and deliver a more oblique insult:

"Now settle down, settle down. I'm an old man, it's early in the morning and I'm gathering my thoughts here. . . . You can have all the armor in the world on a tank, and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee, and it can be blown up. . . . You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

Rumsfeld's remarks caused some people to complain that we're still stuck with the defense secretary we have, not the one we might wish to have at a later time. But I'd miss Rumsfeld if he were gone, if only because we already have too few irascible old men in public life.

Zell Miller isn't the only irascible old man leaving the Senate. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, the smooth-talking South Carolina Democrat, is retiring, too. A few years ago, when a Republican opponent dared Hollings to take a drug test, Hollings said: "I'll take a drug test if you take an I.Q. test."

Until Miller and Matthews clashed in September, that was about as close as any modern politician had come to challenging an opponent to a duel.

Maybe 2005 will bring the real thing. They could cablecast it on Fox and MSNBC: Miller and Matthews, pistols and hillbilly armor, at 50 paces.