World leaders, political movements, ethnic groups, and individual Americans have been singled out as being ‘stupid’ by U.S. Presidents over the last 170 years

chuckgrassley10.jpgIowa Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley has received a fair amount of attention (and heat) for calling Barack Obama “stupid” in a tweet Saturday in reference to previous comments the president had made about the possibility of the Supreme Court overturning his signature health care legislation.

While Grassley’s comment may not have shown respect for the office, presidents themselves are no stranger to using the word ‘stupid’ when it suits their political purposes.

In fact, presidents dating as far back as the 1840s have used the word in speeches and official documents.

A Smart Politics review of presidential papers finds that 16 presidents have used the word “stupid” on 145 occasions in their capacity as president with Bill Clinton leading the way, accounting for 38 percent of all presidential mentions of the word.

A variety of individuals, ideologies, and ideas have been attacked as ‘stupid’ by presidents over the decades including world leaders, war, pacifism, American Indians, and drug users.

The use of the word ‘stupid’ by U.S. presidents has particularly escalated in recent decades, with Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama accounting for over two-thirds of its presidential usage (68.9 percent).

Clinton leads the way, mentioning the term in 55 speeches and documents, or 37.9 percent of all presidential mentions, including some references to the famous “It’s the economy, stupid” tagline from his 1992 campaign.

Clinton is followed by Reagan at 20 mentions (13.8 percent), Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush at 15 (10.3 percent), and Obama at 10 and counting (6.9 percent).

But it was William Harrison who was the first president to use ‘stupid’ in an official capacity, delivering it during his infamous Inaugural Address on March 4, 1841 in which he delivered a jab at England as he spoke about the rights of the people living in the District of Columbia:

“Are their rights alone not to be guaranteed by the application of those great principles upon which all our constitutions are founded? We are told by the greatest of British orators and statesmen that at the commencement of the War of the Revolution the most stupid men in England spoke of “their American subjects.” – William Henry Harrison (March 4, 1841)

The word ‘stupid’ was not used by a president for the next 40+ years until Democrat Grover Cleveland utilized it to describe American Indians in his first Annual Message to Congress:

“Among the Indians upon these several reservations there exist the most marked differences in natural traits and disposition and in their progress toward civilization. While some are lazy, vicious, and stupid, others are industrious, peaceful, and intelligent; while a portion of them are self-supporting and independent, and have so far advanced in civilization that they make their own laws, administered through officers of their own choice, and educate their children in schools of their own establishment and maintenance, others still retain, in squalor and dependence, almost the savagery of their natural state.” – Grover Cleveland (December 8, 1885)

The next notable use of the word occurred during Woodrow Wilson’s second term when he attacked pacifists who were opposed to U.S. involvement in the Great War:

“Any man in America or anywhere else that supposes that the free industry and enterprise of the world can continue if the Pan-German plan is achieved and German power fastened upon the world is as fatuous as the dreamers in Russia. What I am opposed to is not the feeling of the pacifists, but their stupidity. My heart is with them, but my mind has a contempt for them. I want peace, but I know how to get it, and they do not.” – Woodrow Wilson (November 12, 1917)

Harry Truman can lay claim to one of the first partisan uses of the word, employing it in a political attack on his Republican opponents on the Hill regarding the “crisis” in the American education system and the GOP’s opposition of Federal aid to finance schools. Truman delivered the remark on the rear platform of his train in Pacific Junction, Iowa:

“The Republican policy is violently unfair. It is wrong. It is worse than wrong; it is just plain stupid!– Harry Truman (October 8, 1852)

The first president to use the word ‘stupid’ with semi-regularity was Dwight Eisenhower, who did so 15 times – often with a self-effacing wink:

I don’t believe I have yet gotten stupid enough to believe I am so smart that I know all of the answers in advance.” – Dwight Eisenhower (August 17, 1954)

“I think even people who would classify themselves probably as my political enemies do believe I am honest. They may call me stupid, but I think they think I am honest.” – Dwight Eisenhower (February 29, 1956)

But Ike also used the word to criticize how it is governments, not people, who cause war:

“And I should like, of course, to give you this one conviction of my own: that all men, all masses, do truly long for peace. They want you to win the struggle you are waging. It is only governments that are stupid, not the masses of people. Governments may seek for power, for the right to dominate, to extend their authority over others. Free people do not seek that.” – Dwight Eisenhower (July 25, 1954)

I think governments are far more stupid than are their peoples. If we could get the peoples talking to each other, living with each other, visiting in homes, going to schools together, I am perfectly certain that most of the world’s troubles would be over.” – Dwight Eisenhower (April 9, 1958)

Ronald Reagan would later recall Eisenhower’s remarks:

“And I agree with General Eisenhower that war is man’s greatest stupidity. I don’t want to see such a thing. We want peace.” – Ronald Reagan (July 26, 1983)

Reagan was the first of several recent presidents to apply ‘stupid’ to describe people who use drugs, particularly when communicating his anti-drug message to children:

“Now, don’t fall for the line that drug use is daring and fun and fearless. It’s stupid. It’s flirting with addiction, flirting with sickness, and a waste of your own life.” – Ronald Reagan (June 20, 1984)

“And yet we found, in talking to some of the kids, that the pressures on the young people in that school were very high when it comes to this stupid use of drugs and substance abuse.” – George H.W. Bush (March 28, 1989)

“All illegal drugs are dangerous. We have to drive down usage again. It has got to be not a good thing to do, not a cool thing to do. It is a stupid thing to do, as well as an illegal thing to do, and I want you to help bring it back down.” – Bill Clinton (October 20, 1984)

Don’t do stupid things to your body–like drugs and tobacco and excessive alcohol.” – George W. Bush (March 20, 2008)

Presidents have also use the word to attack their enemies on the world stage, such as Adolf Hitler:

“He and Jesse Owens were very, very special to my generation. I can remember what a great source of pride it was when they won that day in Berlin and Adolf Hitler, with his Aryan supremacy stupidity, had to stand up and swallow that stupidity when the gold medals were placed around the necks of some of our fine black athletes.” – Ronald Reagan (March 3, 1983)

Saddam Hussein:

“Well, if he is, he’s clever-crazy on occasion, and then sometimes he does something that seems maddeningly stupid.” – Bill Clinton (December 16, 1997)

And terrorists:

“So, there’s a lot of stupid people out there that think you can change things by terror. We have to be on guard in this country, even though we’ve been blessed by having less of it.” – George H.W. Bush (May 22, 1991)

But it is perhaps Barack Obama – the object of the word this weekend – who most famously used the term in presidential history, in his July 2009 news conference when he inserted himself into the flare up that occurred between Harvard Professor Henry Gates and the Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Department:

“Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.” – Barack Obama (July 22, 2009)

Obama’s use of the word was a rare example in which particular American citizens were singled out for being ‘stupid.’

And now Grassley, nearly three years later, has returned the favor.

Use of the Word “Stupid” by U.S. Presidents

Bill Clinton
Ronald Reagan
Dwight Eisenhower
George H.W. Bush
Barack Obama
Franklin Roosevelt
Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
George W. Bush
Harry Truman
William Harrison
Grover Cleveland
Benjamin Harrison
Woodrow Wilson
Lyndon Johnson
Jimmy Carter

Compiled by Smart Politics from the Public Papers of the President database at the The American Presidency Project.

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