Cussing's hardly new, but just try printing it

Vulgarity: In the days when the foul speech movement was young, it was a challenge to accurately reflect and quote the colorful language of the political world.

April 14, 2002|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A headline in The Sun on Tuesday -- "The right to say whatever the @%#&! you want" -- recalled for me two encounters with vulgarity back in the decade that the dirty speech movement began.

In the summer of 1963, I was the Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution. Washington was girding itself for the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." That event was meant to pressure the federal government to pass civil rights legislation. It was where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech.

One day, I telephoned the press office of Georgia Sen. Richard Russell. He was the leader of the opposition to civil rights legislation. Through some error, I was plugged into a conversation between Russell and his Georgia colleague, Sen. Herman Talmadge.

I heard Talmadge spouting one of the most vile and obscene racist rants I ever heard before or since. It was along the lines of "I hope those @%#&! do ##&*#@! ... and blah, blah, blah." Naturally, I took notes as fast as I could.

I wrote a story about it and filed it. It said Talmadge had said what he said to Russell. My editor in Atlanta said we couldn't use such language. I had to bowdlerize the quote. I expected that. I didn't expect what came next. The editor said that I had to get Talmadge's permission to report on the conversation that I had improperly and perhaps even illegally overheard.

Talmadge was the son of a former governor of Georgia who had been one of the worst demagogues ever elected to office in the South. The senator himself had been a race-baiting demagogue of the first rank.

I went to his office, told him what had happened and asked his permission to quote him. He sat still and silent for what seemed a long time, a big cigar in his mouth (instead of his usual cud of chewing tobacco). A decade earlier, he would have welcomed having his vile language publicized. But the times they were a-changing, and while he was anti-civil rights legislation he foresaw the need for a new image.

Talmadge removed the cigar and said, "Ted, not a chance."

The second experience was in 1968.

I was working for The Sun covering the vice presidential campaign of Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine. He delivered an outdoor speech at Syracuse University where many hostile students in the crowd opposed the war in Vietnam and denounced Muskie's refusal to agree with their demands for immediate U.S. withdrawal. The students drowned Muskie out with @#%&!s and worse.

Muskie lost his temper and shouted back that their language showed what kind of people they were.

So, in my story I quoted their language verbatim. Otherwise, I reasoned, Muskie's retort would make no sense to Sun readers.

I turned in my copy to the Western Union representative on the press plane. A pious and proper New Englander, he was horrified. He could not, would not send such filth over the Western Union's wires. A young woman would have to read it at the next stop when she teletyped it to the Baltimore office, and another would read it when it was received there.

But I insisted. Finally, after he braced himself with a couple of stiff drinks, he did the keystroking on the teletype machine. He also called his Baltimore office and insisted that a male handle it on arrival.

I was told it was the first time that Western Union allowed such vulgarities in its traffic. I didn't know if that was true, but I felt I had struck a blow for freedom of speech.

Of course, The Sun edited out all the @%#&!s.

Theo Lippman is a retired Sun editorial writer.

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