Humor

The Clever Retort

By John Brendt

How much more fun it would have been during the 1988 campaign if Dan Quayle had responded with a brilliant comeback to Lloyd Bentsen's insulting quip, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Quayle's response ("That was really uncalled for, Senator.") was too tame. Quayle merely parried when he should have thrust. He needed a combination of wit and venom - on the order of Winston Churchill's reply to the M.P. Bessie Braddock, who bellowed at him during a dinner party, "Mr. Churchill, you're drunk!" "And you, madam, are ugly," said Churchill. "But in the morning I shall be sober."

As we head into this year's elections, perhaps we can think of an appropriately clever witticism for Quayle - just in case this happens again. Quayle had only a couple of seconds to mull it over. For inspiration, we can take the time to peruse the classics of the genre.

Quite possibly the world's wittiest retort is attributed to John Wilkes, an 18th-century British journalist and politician. When Lord Sandwich offered the opinion that Wilkes would die "either of the pox or on the gallows," Wilkes shot back, "That will depend on whether I embrace your lordship's mistress or your lordship's principles."

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Churchill, the grand master of the rejoinder, made a habit of hoisting people by their own petards. He did it with his legendary response to Bernard Shaw, who had invited him to the opening night performance of one of his plays. Shaw sent two tickets, "one for yourself and one for a friend - if you have one." Churchill could not attend but asked if he could have tickets for the second night performance - "If there is one."

A touch of the absurd can be devastating in the right hands. An English duke, annoyed by the slow service at his London club, called a waiter over and harrumphed, "Do you know who I am?" The waiter replied coolly, "No, sir, I do not. But I shall make inquiries and inform you directly."

In American lore, no volley quite compares with the one between Dorothy Parker and Clare Booth Luce, who approached a doorway at the same time. Luce stepped aside, saying, "Age before beauty." Parker swept through the door, riposting, "Pearls before swine."

None of the above suggests a clever line for Dan Quayle. But in view of what we've since learned about the dark side of Jack Kennedy's character - his sexual antics, his cruel use of women - maybe Quayle didn't need to respond wittily upon being told he was no Jack Kennedy. Maybe all he needed to say was, "Thank you."