Presidential salty language nothing new

WAY BACK WHEN

Many of Bush's predecessors were known for turning the air blue

Back Story

July 22, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

While he was chewing on a luncheon roll and discussing the current crisis between Hezbollah and Israel at a meeting this week with world leaders at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, a microphone picked up President Bush using a well-known barnyard epithet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Presidents, who at times forget they're mere mortals like the rest of us, can be and often are vulgar and profane in private and public, like the rest of us.

"With all due respect, it's like Bush has no dignity," said Russell Baker, who covered the Eisenhower administration for the New York Times, and later wrote the nationally syndicated "Observer" column until retiring in 1998.

"I'm sure Eisenhower cursed privately but was certainly not profane in public. I think in the early days of TV when he had trouble with the teleprompter, he might say something like, `This damn thing isn't working,' but that would be about it," he said.

"I remember what Bush's father said after his TV debate with Democratic candidate Geraldine Ferraro who was running for vice president in 1984. He said, `We kicked a little ass,'" Baker recalled in a telephone interview from his Leesburg, Va., home the other day.

"He was always struggling to be a regular guy which made him into a complete phony. He was, in reality, a Yale man and a gentleman politician from the New England upper classes," Baker said.

If "kicking ass" became the trademark verbal fusillade of George H.W. Bush's administration, it was given added heightened application during the Persian Gulf War, when the president said before several members of Congress that Saddam Hussein was "going to get his ass kicked" and, after the cease-fire in the war went into effect, described his adversary as getting it "kicked."

Richard M. Nixon was another president who, between the hells and damns in tapes from the Watergate era laced with "expletive deleted," revealed that he, too, resorted to the derriere for inspiration. He asked White House counsel John W. Dean, "Have you kicked a few butts around?"

Harry Truman turned the air blue with his use of "son of a bitch," especially when discussing anything that had to do with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom he later fired and relieved of his command.

In 1949, his military aide, Maj. Gen. Harry H. Vaughan, came under criticism after accepting a medal from Argentine dictator Juan Peron.

In a speech defending the general, Truman said, "If any s.o.b. thinks he is going to get any member of my staff or Cabinet changed by some smart-aleck statement over the air, he's mistaken."

However, in an interesting historical twist, s.o.b. was purged from the official transcript of Truman's remarks by the White House.

"The special circumstance that the President took the precaution to employ only the initials is beside the point. That kind of euphemism fools no one," said an editorial in The Sun at the time. "Granted the extenuations, it still remains true that a special obligation rests upon the President of the United States to guard his public speech. In insisting on this, the rest of us have a right to be somewhat Pecksniffian.

"After all, Mr. Truman represents not only those who drink and swear and play the races; he also represents those faithfully following the advice of Polonius: `Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.'"

Washington Post critic Paul Hume got Truman's steam up when he panned the singing of the president's daughter, Margaret, at a Constitution Hall performance.

"Someday I hope to meet you," Truman fumed in a 150-word handwritten letter. "When that happens, you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below."

"A flood of letters-to-the-editor in papers across the country expressed shock over the President's `uncouthness,' his lack of self-control," wrote David McCullough in his 1992 book Truman.

"After Truman referred to something as `Republican manure,' a prim and proper friend asked Mrs. Truman whether she could get Harry to do something about his language and stop using the word manure," recalled Theo Lippman Jr., a retired editorial writer for The Sun and author. "Mrs. Truman replied that it had taken her a lot of time to get her husband to use it in the first place."

According to historians, big fans of the f-word included Truman, Nixon and Presidents John F. kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1962, when Roger Blough, president of United States Steel, promised Kennedy that he wouldn't raise steel prices after agreeing to a new labor contract and then reversed himself, JFK blew up at Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg in a tirade dotted with the classic earthy Anglo-Saxon profanity.

Another controversial comment by Kennedy that displayed a lack of presidential civility arising from the crisis with Blough found its way into the New York Times.

"My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it until now," Kennedy said in published remarks.

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