Vail Daily column: Smash-mouthed politicians bloody themselves |

Vail Daily column: Smash-mouthed politicians bloody themselves

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

What’s “smash-mouthed football”?

It’s an “in-your-face” game-plan that favors moving the pigskin by running the ball instead of throwing it. Ball carriers ram the football down opponents’ throats.

During Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s presidency at the 20th century’s beginning, football reminded fans of British rugby. Forming a wedge like V-shaped flying geese, gridiron gladiators on the line shoved the runner ahead. They engaged in physical play that punished opponents. Minus helmets and mouth-guards, players suffered smashed faces, bloodied gums and lost teeth; hence, the description “smash-mouthed football.”

As a novice New York legislator, Roosevelt hammered opponents in Albany’s statehouse as if he were drubbing them in smash-mouthed football. His inflammatory rhetoric and immoderate condemnation turned adversaries into enemies. Roosevelt scored political points by bloodying opponents. Few Republican colleagues dared tackle him.

He boasted that his legislative career “rose like a rocket.” Roosevelt’s political fame orbited around his quotable personal attacks. “My head was swelled,” he confessed. Colleagues cast Roosevelt in a starkly negative light. They said he hogged the stage, acting the part of “a perfect nuisance.”

Other reformers punted rather than try knocking off-stride Roosevelt’s great appetite for smash-mouthed politics. He turned the legislative field into a bloody mess by yelling in a high-pitched voice, pounding his desk and “firing back” at imaginary political devils. Listeners tired of such verbal histrionics, calling Roosevelt “a damn fool.”

Eric Erickson, conservative pundit who writes on Fox News’ website, exposes the fatal flaw in this insulting strategy to rally voters. Devotees initially support a politician who is “a jerk,” concedes Erickson, but “they want the person to be their jerk,” not an embarrassment “who tries to make everyone else his whipping boy.”

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in “The Bully Pulpit” traces how Roosevelt learned that smash-mouthed politics bloodies the perpetrator as much as his victims. TR’s “antics kept his name in print, but he finally acknowledged that he was ‘absolutely deserted’ and lamented that ‘every bit of influence I had was gone. The things I wanted to do I was powerless to accomplish.’”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Liz Cheney, who aborted her campaign for a Wyoming Senate seat, sound like an immature, ill-tempered young Theodore Roosevelt. Adopting her dad’s tactics, Liz roused Republican wrath when fighting like a pro-wrestler in the political ring. Cheney tried to smash-mouth her way to victory. Being a jerk didn’t pay-off, however. Cheney left the political arena a beaten warrior. Undefined family ill-health needed her attention, she told reporters.

Cheney’s ally Cruz likes to bulldoze opposition. He scores legislative wins, playing as if tussling in smash-mouthed football. Earlier this year, Cruz donned the self-appointed mantel of Ronald Reagan. He vowed to replicate Reagan’s tenacity but none of his charm by vowing to “fight even harder … to repeal every word of Obamacare.”

The senator unleashed verbal napalm on the Affordable Care Act. Lambasting it more than 40 times in one interview, Cruz chastised Obamacare as “a disaster” and “the No. 1 job killer in the country.” After Cruz instigated the government shut-down, Sen. John McCain labelled him a “wacko bird.” Or, a jerk.

Cruz uses zippy one-liners to capture media attention. Like a football player jumping off-side, this Texas Republican crosses the line between bluster and bullying. Loyalists love his flaming rhetoric but most citizens are sick of getting burned by it.

Brassy put-downs are good for sound bites. But using smash-mouthed football tactics to sack political opponents wears thin. Thomas Jefferson cautioned that political nastiness acts like a pointed stick which draws blood. “Take things always by the smooth handle,” he advised those who make a sport of smash-mouthed jeering.

Is it too late for Cheney (both Liz and Dick) and Cruz to benefit from Roosevelt’s mea culpa, transforming him from a hack politician into a statesman? “I thereby learned the invaluable lesson that in the practical activities of life no man can render the highest service unless he can act in combination with his fellows, which means a certain amount of give-and-take between him and them,” admitted a mellower Roosevelt.

Tempering language but not enthusiasm for political football, TR learned to establish common ground. He refrained from corrupting feisty opinions into feuds. “I turned to help them (political allies and adversaries),” he declared, “and they turned to and gave me a hand, and so we were able to get things done.”

“Careless words stab like a sword,” advised a sage, “but the words of wise people bring healing” (Proverbs 12: 18). Natural gusto kept Roosevelt from mastering verbal restraint. He did, however, tone down bombast.

Practicing political gamesmanship, taking inflexible stands and monopolizing the limelight don’t further the common good. Leave these smash-mouthed tactics on the football field.

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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