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James Carville in cartoon panel shooting a machine gun dressed as a warrior
figure 1  


attack dog politics. Vicious, no-holds-barred political attack.reference 1

Attack dog politics make Donald Segretti's dirty tricks during the 1972 presidential campaign seem benign. For many, James Carville (campaign adviser and apologist for Bill Clinton) and his wife, Mary Matalin (political adviser for Bob Dole and, along with her husband, a contentious barking head) embody these traits. When Carville refers to himself as a “junkyard dog” he means it in the most threatening sense possible.

1. Dowd, Maureen. 2002. Attack of the Calico Clones. New York Times, Feb 17, 11.


While candidates may engage in negative politics, it is usually a subordinate or “proxy” who is relegated to the role of attack dog, so the candidate can appear to be “above” such tactics. Often it is planned in advance that the person who plays this role will be disavowed and even jettisoned if necessary. Such a subordinate role is one well-suited to a dog. The willingness of such apparatchiks to fall on their swords speaks of just the kind of loyalty—and expendability—that some humans look for in a dog.

William Safire cited the earliest use he could find from a 1976 Washington Post article by Myra MacPherson: “Columnists were painting [Bo] Callaway as a sort of attack dog, with [President Gerald] Ford giving the orders.”reference 2 This statement called forth an earlier citation from web word maven Michael Quinion on the listserv: “1973 Press Gazette (Hillsboro, Ohio) 9 Oct. 9/7 He said that in some instances the press ‘has prostituted itself’ to the unidentified ‘reliable sources.’ He cited the New York Times as being ‘an attack dog’ and the Washington press corps for ‘bias.’”reference 3 Quinion was apparently not convinced that this use accurately reflected the current meaning of the term and names a later appearance as the earliest: “1974 Sheboygan Press (Wisconsin) 7 Jan. 11/2 ‘Agnew as attack dog who simply had to be pointed in the right direction.’”reference 4

2. Safire, William. 2004. Over the Top. New York Times Magazine, Oct 10, 20.

3. Quinion, Michael. 2004. Attack Dog. American Dialect Society Listserv 14.4. Accessed Jun 29 2006 from http:// cgi-bin/ wa?A2= ind0410b&L= ads-l&D= 1&P=4239.

4. Ibid.
About the illustrations: Here we see James Carville, self-christened as “Corporal Cue Ball,” demonstrating attack dog politics. While he is not the originator of the phrase, he, along with his lovely wife, is among the foremost practitioners of the art.

I found this image on a web site entitled The Official James Carville Website. When I inquired as to the artist and the source of the image, this is the response I received in an unsigned email: “Not sure on the artist but the date on one of the cartoons is October 12, 1998. It was featured in Time Magazine. Hope that helps!I cannot help but wonder what this says about Mr. Carville's attitude toward intellectual property laws.

political campaign materials including a bumper sticker saying
The second illustration is quoted from Kalim Bhatti's photograph in the New York Times.reference 5 This image is copyrighted and unlicensed. I believe that the use of this scaled-down, low-resolution portion of an image to illustrate the article “attack dog politics” qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.
5. Bhatti, Kalim A. 2004 Pennsylvanians Are of Two Minds on the Presidential Election; This Novelty Shop in Harrisburg Caters to Both. New York Times, Oct 13, A16.
see also: junkyard dog; pit bull
cf: poodle; lap dog
Last updated: June 21, 2008
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