Interpersonal relationships in Washington can be impolite affairs. Politician-to-reporter, politician-to-politician, whatever: time is limited and stakes are raised, and a brusque tenor can mean all the difference. Back in August 1965, CBS News reported that U.S. Marines had burned down Vietnamese village complex Cam Ne. The morning after the broadcast, a sunrise telephone call woke CBS News president Frank Standon. The caller was shouting: “Frank, are you trying to fuck me?” Stanton is said to have inquired who was on the line. In his ear, Lyndon B. Johnson replied, “Frank, this is your president and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag.”
Last week, New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny received umbrage in a similarly lewd vein, though not with a pre-dawn accusation of treason. During a Wisconsin speech days before dropping out of the primary, Rick Santorum truncated a well-trod line about Mitt Romney being the “worst Republican” to put up against President Obama given their similar health care laws. But this time he left out the health care bit, and after the speech Zeleny asked Santorum about this broader phrasing. The then-candidate pushed back with language not usually used by on-the-record presidential hopefuls: “Quit distorting my words. It’s bullshit.” This drew a great deal of rote, bubble-headed chatter on cable news, and Santorum worked to contextualize his PG-13 word choice as part of an iron-willed crusade. “I didn’t back down,” he wrote his supporters, “and I didn’t let him bully me.” Lost amid the faux-shock and uproar was Zeleny’s later observation that Santorum had noticed that TV cameras were still rolling and likely figured he could score a few points with an easy attack on the media.
Any belief that our elected leaders don’t swear is beyond silly, bordering on fantasy. The truth is that the average politician patois borrows more from Mamet than it ever does Sorkin. Dick Cheney is one of our era’s greatest villains not just because he’s vile and cold-blooded, but because he’s so unapologetic about it. After he suggested on the Senate floor that Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy copulate with himself, Cheney treated it like therapeutic relief saying, “I expressed myself rather forcefully and felt better off after I had done it.” Similarly, in his 2000 campaign with then-Gov. George W. Bush, a podium mic picked up a crude exchange about yet another New York Times reporter—“major-league asshole,” “oh yeah, big time”—and when asked about it, Cheney basically shrugged: “We express ourselves to one another in that vein.” Refreshing, no? None of this so-sorry-to-have-offended or these-words-have-no-place-in-the-public-sphere mealy-mouthed nonsense from the Dark Lord. Cheney swears, and really he just wishes you wouldn’t be such a baby about it.
Sometimes the public cussing isn’t so mean-spirited. One of Biden’s more popular self-memeings came when he told President Obama during the health care reform signing ceremony that it was “a big fucking deal.” And our professorial president was even recorded calling Kanye West a “jackass” before a CNBC interview—a child’s-play epithet to his former chief-of-staff/profanity-volcano Rahm Emanuel, to be sure. Occasionally in lieu of rude words, the White House has to deal with gestures of an unkind nature. When Air Force One recently touched down in Phoenix, Obama was greeted by weapons-grade loon Gov. Jan Brewer, who was photographed jabbing her finger in his face. Many found this upsetting, including CBS’ craggy Bob Schieffer, who called the scene “another sign of the growing incivility and, really, vulgarity of our modern American politics,” adding “I think we’re a better people than this little incident illustrates.”
Oh, Bob, who are we kidding— we’re not a better people. We’re cheap and immature and we talk and act like foul-mouthed fifth-graders. Lacking the theatrical, vulgar poetry of spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (hint: BBC’s The Thick of It), we’re left with our meager vocabularies, straining to find words that get others to listen to our crappy ideas. Even our most be-sainted former president had moments that today’s pinch-faced tut-tutters would deplore. In an amusing instance, international newswires carried a faintly apologetic headline—“Reagan Profanity Asserted”—on a March 1985 story in which a congressional aide was quoted saying Reagan swore in his effort to gain support for a new missile (for the record, the aide wanted Reagan to push for a balanced budget instead). Reagan—who famously wouldn’t spell out cuss words in his own diary—wasn’t exactly chanting Country Joe and the Fish’s Woodstock oeuvre here, but his use of invective does suggest the practice finds few exceptions in Washington.
So why does everyone including St. Ronnie and sleeveless altar-boy Rick Santorum rely on profanity to make their point? Sure, we may instinctively vent with indelicate language, but curses also work as a kind of record button for our brains. In Washington and elsewhere, foul language brings us to attention as an understood indication that we’re being offended or perhaps inspired. And concepts or encouragements linger longer in our heads if punctuated by brisant indecency. This taste for impudence has surprised some of the more posh neophytes of the political class. In a 1989 interview, Chris Patten, the last governor of British Hong Kong, said, “I think that what most surprises anybody who goes into politics from even a modestly cerebral background is the vulgarity of much of the cut and thrust of politics. I think one is constantly surprised by how middle- or low-brow one has to be in order to be effective.” Basically, politics is a reflection of its people, and we are a crude fucking group.
So when Santorum swears and says he will “not be bullied,” he’s merely speaking the crass argot of Washington. There’s a reason the LBJs and Rahm Emanuels succeed here; political triumph may simply require the heat offered by vulgarity. D.C. offers only varsity-level football, complete with the requisite concussion-inducing head-shots, and it brings with it a diction to match. Following l’affaire Zeleny, reasoned comments like those offered by Sen. Jack Reed—the Rhode Island Democrat told The Hill newspaper, “I think the best approach to anything is to try to be polite and civil… not just for interactions with reporters and personalities, [but] in dealing with everybody.”—make him sound like the Gallant to reality’s Goofus. Obscenity is and will always be part of the political patois, an unavoidable feature of this flawed and vulgar enterprise. The news that Santorum chose to say a bad word didn’t disqualify him as something less than presidential. If anything, it was evidence that he would have fit right in.
It wasn’t always thus. Gen. George Washington issued on Aug. 3, 1776, specific orders that bemoaned his army’s impure talk: “The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing (a Vice heretofore little known in an American Army) is growing into fashion; he hopes the officers will, by example, as well as influence, endeavour to check it… added to this, it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense, and character, detests and despises it.” Washington may have been a war hero and an early interpreter of the American spirit, but this one he got wrong. The unpopular order was rescinded three weeks later.