originally published January 18, 2013
A political catchphrase can be more than a sound bite. It can capture the tone of a movement, appeal to the angst of a people, and sometimes it can be the cluster of words that defines a person’s place in history. But for every “Ask not what your country can do for you”, there are dozens of “Frogs are not asked for opinion when you want to drain a marshland” – weird metaphors and poorly-constructed ideas from the mouths of political leaders around the globe.
That one was from Hungarian leader of Alliance of Free Democrats János Koka, in reference to a number of changes he wanted to make for higher education in his country. Maybe it’s a strange metaphor, or maybe they actually have talking frogs in Hungary. I honestly don’t know.
The Italians, who have a penchant for the dramatic, have a knack for memorable snippets of politico-speak. Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (1972-73, 1976-79, and 1989-92), who was allegedly tied to the mafia – though it could never be proven and probably isn’t true and please don’t come after me and break my kneecaps with a marching baton – once uttered “I recognize my limits, but when I look around I realize I am not exactly living in a world of giants.” Great way to say “I’m not perfect, but look at you assholes.”
Perhaps more succinct was Prime Minister Sivlio Berlusconi (1994-95, 2001-06, and 2008-11 – Italian leadership gets a lot of repeat business, it seems), who, in commenting on Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, called her “an unfuckable lard ass.” That’s the kind of quote that might not get you into Bartlett’s, but will certainly make you memorable.
Lithuanian catchphrases, especially when fully liberated from context, are outstanding. President Rolandas Paksas, who was impeached for having ties to the Russian mafia (which, again, totally didn’t happen), made headlines for uttering “I took a dump and patted it with my hand”, which is apparently a colorful Lithuanian way of saying “I couldn’t care less.” If you’re wondering just how weird Lithuanian sayings can be, how about when MP Arúnas Valinskas was quoted on National Radio saying, “Songs for women are like cocks passing from mouth to mouth.” Again, no context, no idea what in holy fuck he was talking about.
New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange (1984-89) was brilliantly to-the-point when a journalist asked if he might provide a brief word about Australia. His answer: “Wombat.”
Apparently Polish Member of Parliament Józef Zych accidentally mis-used the passive voice in 2005 when he uttered a phrase that could only be literally translated as “It’s not the first time when I get a hard-on… I get to speak in the Parliament.”
When Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (2000-04) was being haunted by allegations of corruption, partially relating to his chicken farm, he snapped back at the press, “I invite those who started to count my hens to count also my balls.” In all fairness, he was using a secondary meaning of balls, which also means ‘eggs’ in Romanian, but I think the statement packs a lot more pith and vinegar if he says ‘balls’.
Paulo Maluf, who was a congressman, mayor and governor in Brazil, may have uttered the most fantastically moronic political statement I’ve ever heard – including anything heard throughout the George W. Bush administration. Maluf was addressing a group of medical students in Belo Horizonte, pointing out that he was in favor of capital punishment when it came to rape + murder cases. He chuckled and said, “If one has sexual urges, that’s okay; rape, but do not kill!” He was running for the office of President at the time. Shockingly, he did not win.
(Maluf, seen here wiping the spittle of idiocy from the corner of his mouth)
Janio Quadros, who was president of Brazil for only seven months in 1961, was once asked by a reporter why he used to drink. Quadros gave the most straightforward and honest answer ever uttered by a politician: “I drink because it is liquid. If it were a solid, I would eat it.” Right on, Janio. Right on. Also, you had a face that was made for politics:
Looking through the list of Canadian political utterances, I have to say that I’m disappointed at the lack of outlandishly stupid statements. The stupid phrases are always the most entertaining ones. But we did have Pierre Trudeau, and that’s a guy who knew how to deliver a swift line. Whether he was declaring as justice minister that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” or matter-of-factly explaining that Canada’s main exports are “hockey players and cold fronts”, the guy was always good for a quote. My favorite was in response to some less-than-complimentary words US President Nixon had uttered about him. Trudeau’s response: “I’ve been called worse things by better people.”
Colombian president Julio César Turbay Ayala (1978-82) said a jumbled mouthful when he stated, “I am neither for nor against, but quite the opposite.” Spoken like a true politician. I might have voted instead for candidate Alvaro Gómez Hurtado, who said, “Statistics are like blood sausage: they are delicious until you find out how they’re made.”
(or until you realize it looks like you’re eating poop)
Political catchphrases out of the United States read like a must-know laundry list of immortal quotes, from “the buck stops here” to “a house divided against itself cannot stand” to “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Most of the most quizzical catchphrases – at least the ones immortalized here – have come from recent history.
“I know it when I see it” was how Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart defined obscenity in 1964. When George Bush Sr. was asked about the unifying theme of his 1988 presidential campaign, he responded with, “Oh, the vision thing.”
I could delve into a lengthy kilograph on George W. Bush’s misunderestimation of the English language, but I’ve always been more partial to Bill Clinton’s ludicrous “I didn’t inhale” lie, or the magnificent wordsmithery of “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” The guy knew how to spin a memorable phrase.
This list will grow longer and longer as political leaders crawl, crash and cough through their speeches (Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” is already tacked to the bottom of the USA list). Sometimes they’ll mess up and describe the Internet as a ‘series of tubes’ (thanks, Senator Ted Stevens!), and sometimes they’ll nail it. Like when Estonian president Lennart Meri stated eloquently in 1997: “The situation is shitty, but this is the fertilizer of our future.”