“A genuinely shocking book about Elvis Presley,” Martin Amis wrote in the 1980s, “would disclose that the King secretly gave away vast sums to charity, that he was actually very slim and healthy, and spent much of his free time working with handicapped children.” The latest controversy coming from Britain involving Prince Harry—this time a video of him referring to a Pakistani cadet as “our little Paki friend”—merits a similar response: A truly shocking story would be one where a young prince who tragically lost his mother a few years ago and whose every move the media follows, ready to pounce, is never caught saying anything inappropriate.
The real shame about the inappropriate utterances coming from royals and politicians these days is how boring they are. It used to be the case that if you were going to offend, you’d do it with a touch of class. Churchill, as with most things in British politics, led the way. The day before he delivered his famous Iron Curtain address at Fulton, a ceremony was held dedicating a bust of him. When a buxom Southern lady told him, “Mr. Churchill, I traveled over a hundred miles for the unveiling of your bust,” Churchill gallantly responded: “Madam, I assure you, I would gladly return the favor.”
When the British Foreign Office official Paul Henry Gore-Booth received a telegram from an official in a far away country that read: “Ruler has died suddenly. Please advise,” he responded: “Hesitate to dogmatize, but suggest burial.” A favorite of mine is when Lord Sandwich accosted John Wilkes, telling him “Wilkes, you will die either on the gallows or of the pox.” Rather than fuming or drawing his sword, Wilkes responded: “That must depend on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress.”
Among the rudest British public figures was the Earl of Birkenhead, F. E. Smith. A judge once told him, “I have read your case, Mr. Smith, and I am no wiser now than I was when I started.” He replied, “Perhaps not, my Lord, but far better informed.” When another judge, presiding over a sodomy case, asked Smith solemnly: “What do you think one ought to give a man who allows himself to be buggered?” He replied: “Oh, thirty shillings or two pounds; whatever you happen to have on you.”
British public figures did not have a monopoly on offending with class, however. Americans were pretty good at it, too. Abraham Lincoln, upset by General George B. McClellan’s inaction in the field, wrote: “Dear General, if you do not want to use the army I would like to borrow it for a few days.” Frustrated with Lincoln’s orders requiring detailed reports from his activities in the field, McClellan in turn showed his wit (and rudeness), sending Lincoln a telegram saying: “We have just captured six cows. What should we do with them?” Lincoln won that round: “Milk them.”
After a fellow congressman put his hand on Speaker Nicholas Longworth’s bald head and told him it “feels just like my wife’s bottom,” Longworth responded: “By golly, it does, doesn’t it?” Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once had to attend the funeral of a man he disliked. When someone arrived late and asked him at what point they were at in the service, he replied: “They’ve just opened the defense.” And when Congressman John Randolph of Virginia bumped into his arch-foe Henry Clay on a narrow street in Washington and said, “I never give way to a scoundrel,” Clay replied, “I do,” and moved aside.
It’s too much to expect royals and politicians never to make missteps, which are human nature. But perhaps they could make it enjoyable, rather than simply uncomfortable, for the rest of us. They’d probably find their victims more forgiving, too.