It seems like present-day politics is just an extension of the middle school playground, with insults and nose-thumbing galore. But if we take a look back at the history of the presidency, we gain some perspective. The ability to insult the president, guaranteed by the First Amendment, has been part of the nation’s politics since the founders, who were referred to as “a muttonhead” (George Washington), “a repulsive pedant” (John Adams), and a “brandy-soaked defamer of churches” (Thomas Jefferson), among other things.
Here are my nominees for the Top Twenty presidential insults, ranked on freshness, snark, imagery, and staying power.
20. “A chameleon on plaid”—That was how President Herbert Hoover referred to successor Franklin Roosevelt and his changing positions.
19. “Woody Allen without the humor”—Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, describing Donald Trump’s self-involvement. She also referred to Trump as a “drama queen.”
18. “Judas Johnson”—Before presidents were compared to Hitler, there were Caesar, Cromwell, and Judas. And the alliteration was recycled to refer to Lyndon Johnson by Southerners unhappy with his support for civil rights.
17. “A cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.” Not Mike Pence, but Benjamin Harrison, as characterized by rising star Teddy Roosevelt.
16. “Martin Van Ruin”—Part of a long tradition of making fun of presidential names, which includes Fainting Frank Pierce, Dishonest Abe Lincoln, Useless Grant, Rutherfraud Hayes, Franklin Double-dealing Roosevelt, Tricky Dick Nixon, and Slick Willy Clinton.
15. “A mountebank”—H. L. Mencken, a champion insulter of presidents, get points for digging up this synonym for charlatan to refer to Teddy Roosevelt. As for Franklin Roosevelt, Mencken would later call him “a Quack,” and “Roosevelt the Minor.”
14. “A strutting pedagogue” and an “unctuous charlatan”—writer Julian Hawthorne (son of Nathaniel), referring to Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had not just been a college professor but also a college president and was often on the receiving end of professorial insults and cartoons. Teddy Roosevelt called him “a trained elocutionist.”
13. “Pretty much confined to having had breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes” was how commentator Patrick Buchanan summed up candidate Bill Clinton’s foreign policy experience in 1992.
12. “A real centaur—part man, part horse’s ass”—Dean Acheson, who had been Harry Truman’s secretary of state, used that bit of animal imagery to characterize Lyndon Johnson.
11. “Hatchet-faced, horrid looking”—Abe Lincoln was insulted for many things, but his looks often came up, and hatchet-faced plays nicely off his image as a rail-splitter. Gerald Ford, who entered office with the quip that he was “a Ford not a Lincoln,” was said to be “a fine-looking man in a Lake Wobegon sort of way.”
10. “A spineless cactus”—A splendid oxymoron applied to Herbert Hoover, it blends ineffectiveness and prickliness.
9. “A puzzlewit”—The intelligence of presidents has been maligned in lots of ways—from “idiot” to “imbecile” to ”birdbrain,” but “puzzlewit” takes the cake. Teddy Roosevelt dropped that one on William Howard Taft, when he challenged Taft in 1912.
8. “A two-fisted four-square liar”—a description of Richard Nixon by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Nixon was called a liar by lot of people—Harry Truman called him “a no-good lying bastard”—but Goldwater’s characterization sticks out in its arithmetical doubling up.
7. “Napoleon’s… submissive satellite”—Before Vladimir Putin, there was Napoleon, and James Madison was said to be his “humble imitator and submissive satellite.”
6. “A superannuated old woman, [and] a pitiable dotard”—William Henry Harrison, at the time the oldest person to run for office, as described by the Washington Globe. He exhausted himself projecting an image of vigor, became ill after giving a long inauguration speech in the cold, and died just a month into his presidency. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that “superannuated” meant “too old to serve.” I had to look it up too.
5. “A vulgar little Babbitt” was how publisher Henry Luce saw Harry Truman, invoking the 1930 Sinclair Lewis novel about the middle class.
4. “A missionary lectern-pounding Amen ten-finger C-major-chord Sister-Martha-at-the-Yamaha-keyboard loblolly piney-woods Baptist.” That was writer Tom Wolfe on Jimmy Carter. If you can’t be concise, go over the top.
3. “The Teflon-coated president”—Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder’s description of Ronald Reagan as a politician that nothing would stick to. The insult, however, has stuck.
2. “A swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president”—Hunter S. Thompson on Richard Nixon. Extra points for the assonance in “jabbering dupe.”
1. “A human smudge”—Famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, summing up Warren Harding. It doesn’t get any simpler or more elegant.
Edwin Battistella teaches at Southern Oregon University. His most recent book is Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump (Oxford University Press, 2020).