Sunday, January 21, 2007

Masticating Thespian

It was one of those obituaries that make you say to yourself, "He died? I didn't know he was still alive."

George Smathers Florida senatorIn this case, it was this morning's report that former Florida Senator George A. Smathers had passed away at the age of 93.

I first heard the name of George Smathers when I was a high-school sophomore. My debate coach, James M. Copeland, used as an illustration a famous speech that Smathers gave on the stump when he was campaigning against incumbent Senator Claude "Red" Pepper, his onetime mentor, in the 1950 Democratic primary. (In those days in Florida, as in Virginia and other Southern states, the only election that mattered was the Democratic primary.)

Mr. Copeland taught us how Smathers had bamboozled some of his less-literate constituents by using fancy-sounding words that implied worse meanings than they actually held.

Smathers, I should add, denied having made the speech throughout his life, even offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove it had been delivered.

In its issue of April 17, 1950, Time magazine reported Smathers' words as follows:

Smathers was capable of going to any length in campaigning, but he indignantly denied that he had gone as far as a story printed in northern newspapers. The story wouldn't die, nonetheless, and it deserved not to. According to the yarn, Smathers had a little speech for cracker voters, who were presumed not to know what the words meant except that they must be something bad. The speech went like this: "Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper before his marriage habitually practiced celibacy."
Had Smathers actually given this speech, he would have been practicing a form of the literary technique known as paranomasia, defined as
a play on words or ideas. This term is from the Greek and is a combination of a preposition and a noun, the former primarily meaning beside; the latter indicating to name or to give a name to. Laying aside the rigidity of the etymology of the term, we would say that paronomasia consists of our laying down beside one word or idea that has been used-- a similar one with a little variation or change. The point or force of the word or idea thus employed is contingent upon our understanding of the word or idea upon which it is a pun.
In this case, of course, the point is contingent on the audience's misunderstanding of "the word or idea upon which it is a pun."

Regardless of whether Smathers actually delivered his famous speech, it became a well-known component of political and rhetorical lore. It is even featured on the web site of the Claude Pepper Foundation. In 1970, Mad magazine published a revised and extended version of Smathers speech, which itself has sometimes come to be attributed to Smathers. (According to my research, the parody speech was written by Bill Garvin.)

Garvin's version includes some hilarious passages and demonstrate much more completely the principles of paranomasia. For example:
Let us take a very quick look at that childhood: It is a known fact that, on a number of occasions, he emulated older boys at a certain playground. It is also known that his parents not only permitted him to masticate in their presence, but even urged him to do so.
But wait, there's more:
The men in the family are likewise completely amenable to moral suasion.

My opponent's uncle was a flagrant heterosexual.

His sister, who has always been obsessed by sects, once worked as a proselyte outside a church.

His father was secretly chagrined at least a dozen times by matters of a pecuniary nature.

His youngest brother wrote an essay extolling the virtues of being a homo sapien.

His great-aunt expired from a degenerative disease.

His nephew subscribes to a phonographic magazine.

His wife was a thespian before their marriage and even performed the act in front of paying customers.

And his own mother had to resign from a women's organization in her later years because she was an admitted sexagenarian.
Garvin's take on Smathers' anti-Pepper speech has been republished in numerous places.

Pepper, it should be noted, did not let Smathers end his own political career. He tried for a Senate comeback in 1958 and, failing that, ran for the House of Representatives in 1962, winning election and serving until 1989. "Red" Pepper, whom Smathers had accused of holding pro-Stalinist sympathies, was succeeded in Congress by Cuban-born Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is now the ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Hat-tip to Tim Hulsey for the reference to paranomasia.

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