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Bookworm: Presidential bashing through the years

'Black Widow' will have you caught in its web

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

"Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump"

  • By Edwin L. Battistella
  • c.2020, Oxford University Press
  • $14.95, higher in Canada; 228 pages

You've got a few things to say about that guy in the White House. If not now, well, you've said a few things about other guys in the White House over the years – much of it civil, but some of it was inappropriate for polite society. And in "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels" by Edwin L. Battistella, you're in good company.

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Was there ever a time when people didn't verbally poke one another? Probably not. Says Battistella, in times past, insulting was a combat sport of lips and minds, like a Greek-and-Roman "Yo Mama" war of words. With that history of zingers and arrows in mind, it's no surprise that American Presidents have heard their share.

"Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump" by Edwin L. Battistella.

Insults, says Battistella, take many forms but for all of them, disrespect and demeaning are key. In politics, especially, neutral words can take on a tone of deep insult, some names practically scream to be zinged, flaws (real or perceived) could be highlighted, and insulters should gets bonus points for alliteration. Old language can also resurface as a brand-new burn, when words just come back around to insult anew.

"Dotard," anyone? Sticks, stones, and snowflakes aside, then, does an insult matter?

Yes, says Battistella: "How we insult presidents tells us about the presidents, but it also tells us about the American nation's anxieties and aspirations."

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And that White House guy gets it on the chin. Though he was really quite popular, for example, George Washington took his share of insults, and he took them to heart. Abraham Lincoln, beloved now, was called an "imbecile" in his day. Alice Roosevelt Longworth had very little good to say about her cousin-in-law, Franklin. Harry Truman was infamously rankled by an insult to his daughter; JFK and Bill Clinton were both called "spoiled"; several post-World-War-II presidents have been verbally compared to Hitler; Margaret Thatcher had a uniquely-British opinion about Ronald Reagan, and what was said about Richard Nixon, well, let's just say that it's in this book ...

"Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump" author Edwin L. Battistella.

In this time of partisan politics and divisiveness, you've probably said some things. You probably have some opinions. A few of them may be rather peppery, so what you need is a little sprinkle of "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels."

And that's about what you'll get: a small but nicely-balanced, nonpartisan selection of 45-plus brief, quick-to-read entries and accompanying sidebars that are gently humorous, historical, and – most surprisingly – not entirely focused on politics. Nope, author Edwin L. Battistella writes just as much about the language we use when we create insults as he does about the targets of those japes; here, you'll learn about the different kinds of insults and how delivery is important. Battistella then goes on to include a glossary of common terms and a how-to for insults which (who knew?) actually have structure and meaning that an English teacher would be proud of.

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Don't be surprised if you find yourself burning with a brand-new eighteenth-century vocabulary. Don't be surprised if you laugh, either, because, as for "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels," there's a lot of good to say about it.

"Black Widow"

  • By Leslie Gray Streeter
  • c. 2020, Little, Brown
  • $27, $34 Canada; 263 pages

You find yourself spinning, spinning, spinning. When you lose someone, that's how it feels: like you're spinning in place, you can't think or understand, and there's a time limit, as if you're in one of those game show Cash Machines and you can't catch a thing. You can barely fathom that, as in the new book "Black Widow" by Leslie Gray Streeter, it will get better.

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They were not childhood sweethearts. They were, however, in the same graduating class: Scott Zervitz, the tall, white, Jewish dude that knew everybody; and Leslie Streeter, a quiet Black nerd who spent part of middle-school overseas. She sat behind him in one class, and that was their only connection – although she remembered that he was cute, and he told his friends that he really liked her.

"Black Widow" by Leslie Gray Streeter.

Twenty-some years later, they reconnected over a class reunion. He happened to be living a half-hour away from her Palm Beach condo and, well, one thing led to another. She resisted, though, clearly stating that she was a celibate-until-marriage kind of girl.

That didn't faze him. He was a keeper.

They married, their families embraced their differences, he was looking forward to a new job, and they were in the process of adopting a baby boy. And then, in the middle of "making out" one night, Scott abruptly died.

Remarkably, Streeter held herself together in the following days, but barely, and with an oceans' worth of tears. Of those hours, she says, "timelines keep slipping" and there are things she doesn't remember and can't tell. But someone suggested once that while making new memories with Scott is no longer possible, talking about him would let him "live on in those stories with ... new people."

And so, she shares ... She writes of his love for the Baltimore Ravens, his passion for sports memorabilia, his solidness, and his easy self-assuredness. He was a fan of 1970s TV. He was calm. He was "smart, and that was super-hot." He was romantic. He was generous.

"Black Widow" author Leslie Gray Streeter.

He was loved. Okay, so here's the thing: that box of tissue you brought with you? Once you get about mid-book, don't put it away. Keep it around because, while "Black Widow" will make you laugh sometimes, your eyes will leak a lot, too.

But yet, this book isn't all touchy-feely-teary. Author Leslie Gray Streeter tells her story with a sense of humor that seems to appear because she's had the time to find it, which could be of comfort to widows who need to know that that can happen. Because she so keenly recalls the kind of details that are often lost in a fog of grief, Streeter's sometimes-profane memories add textured richness to this tale, as well as a knife-sharp view at the process of getting through. Readers will love that intensity. New widows will appreciate the wisdom.

At the risk of spoiling, there's a sweet ending to this love-letter that you need to see, so stop spinning. Start "Black Widow," and it won't take long to be caught in its web.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.