Vail Daily column: Mind your verbal manners

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

Republicans Marco Rubio and Donald Trump fight in verbal brawls. Their R-rated putdowns and below-the-belt slurs have dragged this year’s presidential campaign into the gutter.

After the last slugfest masquerading as a debate, Rubio stained his conversation by insinuating The Donald had wet his pants. Rubio’s “body-fluid criticisms” of Trump replaced presidential decorum with trash-talking.

He accused The Donald of having a meltdown during a commercial break. “First, he had this little make-up thing, applying like makeup around his mustache, because he had one of those sweat mustaches,” said Rubio with the glee of a potty-mouthed 5-year-old.

“Then he (Trump) asked for a full-length mirror. I don’t know why,” teased Rubio in mock horror, “because the podium goes up to here, but he wanted a full-length mirror. Maybe to make sure his pants aren’t wet, I don’t know.”

Snarky Trump didn’t back off from this verbal pissing contest. Holding bottled water, he guzzled some of it, like profusely sweating Rubio previously did when caught on camera.

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Giving the Republican Party’s rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address a few years ago, Rubio’s brow beaded with sweat. Assuming he was off-camera, Rubio grabbed some bottled water and took giant swigs — all recorded live on national TV. Trump called him “nervous Nellie,” inferring that Rubio gets jumpy and isn’t of presidential merit.

A late 20th century Princeton Theological Seminary preaching professor offered a corrective to trash-talking politicians who sound like juvenile boys. Use refined language, advised the teacher of preachers. Express elevated thoughts that capture excellence. Banish cheap shots. Don’t bow to locker-room banter.

“Use chaste prose,” urged the professor. That is, cleanse vocabulary of rancor and malice, with intent to stain an adversary’s reputation. Refrain from sounding like an oafish carnival barker. Remember, said the preaching professor, “Rash words stab like a sword’s thrusts, but the words of wise people bring healing” (Proverbs 12:18).

Learn from Abraham Lincoln, the professor advised. Early into politics, this rail-splitter sounded churlish like Rubio and Trump. His bombastic rhetoric sullied opponents’ character. Lincoln’s rapier wit and sharp satire “took the hide off” adversaries, said listeners. Some worried that Lincoln would soil the White House with barnyard humor that played well on the unsophisticated Illinois prairies.

At 33 years old, Lincoln wrote an anonymous letter to an Illinois newspaper in which he teased his nemesis James A. Shields, the Democrat state auditor. Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel because of the insults. Smart-alecky Lincoln suggested a weapon of choice — slinging “cow dung at five paces.” Cooler heads suspended the duel.

After this verbal altercation, Lincoln learned to clean up his act. His prose gained polish. He didn’t go for the kill, even when adversaries deserved strong condemnation. Prior to the Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln’s self-righteous Republicans criticized Southerners for rebelling against the federal government and supporting slavery. They urged Lincoln to denounce Southern slave-masters.

The president declared in his address that slavery was the prime reason for fighting the Civil War. “All knew that this interest (slavery) was, somehow, the cause of war,” he declared.

“Interest” is a tame referent for “slavery.” Lincoln could have castigated the South for their abomination, their inhumanity, their wretched custom of servitude. But he holstered verbal bullets that other politicians eagerly fired.

Today, presidential politics features campaigners who bulldoze opponents. Pile dirt on them. Sully reputations. Manufacture verbal arsenals that mow down competitors. Crowds love this verbal blood sport when bellicose campaigners sound like professional wrestlers.

Brash political rhetoric has enjoyed popularity since our Republic’s birth. Historian John Howe, in a 1967 American Quarterly review, describes colonial gutter talk. “Throughout American political life,” Howe reports, “in the public press, in speeches, sermons, the private correspondence of individuals — there ran a spirit of intolerance and fearfulness that seems quite amazing.” And crudely offensive.

Serving as vice-president in 1797, Thomas Jefferson cringed when he heard disgusting political discourse. It split friendships. “Men who have been intimate all their lives,” grieved Jefferson, “cross the street to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hats.”

Callous taunts get a rise from crowds. It’s time to retrieve Lincoln’s call for “malice toward none and charity (good will) for all,” including political opponents.

Citizens elect statesmen, not political hacks, to further the common good. Demand from them noble speech, fit for the high calling to presidential office.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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