January 09, 2008

Who is the crazy uncle of American politics?

This morning, David Kurtz called Chris Matthews "The Crazy Uncle of American Politics" for offering the opinion that Hillary Clinton is "only competitive because Bill 'messed around'".

This surprised me, because I'm used to seeing "the crazy uncle" designation applied to Ron Paul: as evidence that I'm not alone in this, the Google search {"crazy uncle" "Ron Paul"} yields 13,600 hits.

But Representative Paul has some significant competition: {"crazy uncle" "Dick Cheney"} yields 2,550 hits, including most famously Barack Obama's comment on the discovery that Dick Cheney is his (distant) cousin:

We had been trying to hide that cousin thing for a long time. Everybody's got a black sheep in the family. A crazy uncle in the attic.

Other common associations with this phrase include Rudy Giuliani (2,210), John McCain (2,080), Dennis Kucinich (1,160), Pat Robertson (794), Howard Dean (752), and Mike Gravel (673). (Some of these numbers come from being mentioned often in article that discuss Ron Paul, but still...)

The current popularity of the term seems to be connected with Matt Stoller's "crazy uncle theory":

A few years ago, I had what's called a 'crazy uncle' theory of internet politics. I noticed that the figures who did well online all seemed like a crazy uncle saying things that are true but extremely uncomfortable, that power and authority was built on silly illusions. You know, it's like when you're a kid at Thanksgiving and your uncle starts telling you about how much pot your parents smoked, which you had never really known about. It's uncomfortable but kind of awesome.

But the metaphor is certainly broader than politics, and older than Matt Stoller's use. We can find a 2006 reference at Valleywag to "The crazy uncles of New Media":

If it wasn't for Marc Canter screaming, it would have been a total nappy time.

Just don't get your arms and legs too close to Uncle Marc... he's been known to bite. Him, Dave Winer, Steve Gillmor... All like your crazy uncle the grown-ups found embarassing but the kids loved cause it made Thanksgiving all the more enjoyable.

In 1992, Sam Howe Verhovek wrote in the NYT about Senator Alfonse D'Amato:

And one man here laughingly -- but favorably -- likened Mr. D'Amato's bombastic tenure to "getting to watch your crazy uncle go to the Senate."

In a 1996 NYT article, Richard L. Berke wrote about Ross Perot:

For some voters, fascination over Mr. Perot has turned to embarrassment. Mr. Perot likes to harp on the deficit as the crazy aunt locked in the attic; to his detractors, the Texas billionaire is the crazy uncle who broke out.

Also in the 1996 NYT, Bernard Weinraub wrote about Michael Ovitz at Disney that:

The executive who spoke on the condition that he not be named said, ''Three months into it people said, 'This is just not working.' '' It reached a point, the executive added, where at top management meetings ''he was like the crazy uncle at a family reunion, and nobody ever talks to him.''

It's possible that David Kurtz may have applied this phrase to Chris Matthews because Matthews is fond of using it himself:

("Dissecting the new Bush ads", 3/4/2004) Matthews: I'm going to point out the crazy uncle in the attic or aunt in the attic they don't talk about in these ads. The things don't discuss certain things: No mention of Cheney, no mention of Iraq, no mention of tax cuts.

("The Wounded-Courier", 6/25/2007) Hardball host Chris Matthews took a somewhat different view but also seemed unconcerned about Cheney's new power grab. Speaking with Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman on Monday night’s program, Matthews said, "The thing is, you gotta love Dick Cheney. You may not agree with him on this, or anything, but he's everyone's crazy uncle -- you know, one part Jed Clampett, Uncle Fester fiddling around in that dungeon, a little Foster Brooks tossing a few back, Fred Sanford with the ticker, kind of a speedball of Mr. Potter and Chuck Manson and the cop who hunts that guy for stealing a loaf of bread in Les Miserable...he’s got this whole C.H.U.D., Death of a Salesman, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, corporate Boo Radley, late-career Orson Welles 'We sell no wine before its time' quality...I mean he's just fascinating to watch, this guy. People plunk down ten bucks every day to see horror movies but this guy's free and he's there all the time...well, he’s somewhere, in a bunker, hanging upside down from a ceiling, sleeping one off in a coffin during a day pass, in the war room sticking pins in voodoo dolls, singing 'Raise High the Flag'...”

But really, I think it just reflects Kurtz's opinion that Matthews is an out-of-control loudmouth crank. Or at least, that he plays one on T.V.

[A politically irrelevant observation, which may offer a clue about how Google's indexing works: {"crazy uncle" "Ron Paul"} get 13,600 hits, but {"Ron Paul" "crazy uncle"} get only 6,680...]

[Update -- Andy Hollandbeck writes:

After reading your Language Log post about the "crazy uncle" metaphor used in politics, I wondered how often Hillary Clinton, by extension, had been referred to as a "crazy aunt." So I googled "crazy aunt" "hillary clinton". I don't know how to interpret what I found.

There seem to be very few references to Hillary as a crazy aunt, but there are quite a number of other uses in the political arena. What is strange is that -- except for at least one reference to Ann Coulter as a crazy aunt -- most "crazy aunt" references are to men. I found a few references to Mike Gravel and California representative Pete Stark as "crazy aunts," but a great many references (some of them direct quotes from the same single source) to Rudy Giuliani as "the crazy aunt of the GOP."

It makes me wonder about gender choices and what they imply here. What makes Rudy Giuliani a crazy aunt instead of a crazy uncle? Are crazy aunts somehow even crazier than crazy uncles? If so, does that imply some inherent sexism?

I don't know. Perhaps there is some connection to Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic, though the eponymous madwoman in that case was not an aunt, but Rochester's wife Bertha in Jane Eyre, and the relationship to contemporary male American politicians would be obscure to say the least.

Then again...


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 9, 2008 06:49 PM