Give Me That Old Time Vituperation

We often hear that we live in an era of remarkably blunt, if not downright ugly, political rhetoric. To me, the “rhetoric” seems to consists of patently loony claims–that the president was born in Mecca, brandishing an AK-47 among a family of bloodthirsty jihadis, for instance–that gain currency through relentless repetition.

Anyway, I happened across this the other night. It’s an account in the late Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert” featuring Hiram Johnson, a Progressive Era politician who, among other things, championed the state’s now-jaded ballot initiative system. Here’s Johnson, talking about “General” Harrison Gray Otis, a figure he apparently did not think much of:

“Hiram Johnson was addressing a crowd in a Los Angeles auditorium when someone in the audience, who knew that Johnson’s talent for invective surpassed even the General’s, yelled out, ‘What about Otis?’ Johnson, all prognathous scowl and murderous intent, took two steps forward and began extemporaneously. ‘In the city of San Francisco we have drunk to the very dregs of infamy,’ he said in a low rumble. ‘We have had vile officials, we have had rotten newspapers. But we have had nothing so vile, nothing so low, nothing so debased, nothing so infamous in San Francisco as Harrison Gray Otis. He sits there in his senile dementia with gangrene heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all the things that are decent, frothing, fuming, violently gibbering, going down to his grave in snarling infamy. This man Otis is the one blot on the banner of southern California; he is the bar sinister on your escutcheon. My friends, he is the one thing that all Californians look at when, in looking at southern California, they see anything that its disgraceful, depraved, corrupt, crooked, and putrescent–that,’ Johnson concluded in a majestic bawl, ‘that is Harrison Gray Otis!’ “

(As my friend Steve notes elsewhere: “Imagine anyone these days using a phrase like “he is the bar sinister on your escutcheon.” A way to call a person a bastard.” And indeed, I had meant to look that term up. Here’s what the OED has to say about it (under “bar”):

6. Heraldry. An honourable ordinary, formed (like the fess) by two parallel lines drawn horizontally across the shield, and including not more than its fifth part. bar sinister: in popular, but erroneous phrase, the heraldic sign of illegitimacy….

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