What’s The Big F’in Deal With Profanity In Politics?

If the politics of “We the People” could be personified, angry soccer moms would likely shove a bar of soap in its mouth.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has built his political career on verbal brashness. When Hurricane Irene swept into the state last year, he warned fellow New Jerseyans to “get the hell off the beach.” And last week, the man widely considered a finalist in Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate search shouted at one of his constituents outside a Jersey Shore ice cream stand. The unidentified man had approached the governor and criticized his recent decision to expand public funding for charter schools. The move has upset education advocates who hoped that the state would invest the money in struggling public schools. Christie clutched his ice cream cone and advanced toward the man.

“You’re a real big shot shooting your mouth off!” Christie shouted at the constituent, who subsequently left the scene.

“Keep walking,” Christie added.

Politicians often have press secretaries, speechwriters, and advisers to maintain public relations. But moments after sharing some corny, cheesy puns at Coney Island’s annual 4th of July Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked his aides frankly, “Who wrote this shit?”

Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker believes that in the age of HBO and uncensored Internet, politicians are using profanity to appear more in touch with the demotic.

“Because they want to appear to be in tune with popular culture, politicians feel free to express themselves in profane ways,” Baker told the Associated Press late last week. “I honestly do believe that, in aping the coarseness of popular culture, people in public life are really dragging us into a discourse of fang and claw.”

American politics used to be a clean sport, according to Baker. But history proves that’s hardly the case. John Nance Garner, who served as vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, once remarked, “The vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.”

Lyndon B. Johnson had a similar way with words. The Texan who served in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives once analogized the two chambers to “the difference between a chicken salad and chicken shit.” And while debating J. Edgar Hoover’s future as FBI chief, he ultimately ruled against firing him, adding that “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.”

Who knows what came out of Thomas Jefferson’s mouth after the Second Continental Congress revised the Declaration of Independence? Audio recording devices weren’t around, and hot mics weren’t a problem. But most of today’s conversations, both those within and outside of the political world, are being recorded in ever-increasing detail.

That pattern began during the Richard Nixon administration. In a taped conference with two presidential aides, the man popularly known as Tricky Dick called Mexicans “dishonest,” said that black people lived like “a bunch of dogs,” and that San Francisco was a city of “fags” and “decorators.”

The 21st-century Beltway is also no stranger to profane outbursts. During George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign, the future president was recorded calling New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a “major-league asshole.” In 2004, former Vice President Dick Cheney told Senator Patrick Leahy to “fuck yourself” after the two had passed by each other on Capitol Hill. And during Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s 2004 White House bid, the Democrat regretted his decision to vote for the Iraq War. He told Rolling Stone magazine, “Did I expect George Bush to fuck it up as badly as he did? I don’t think anybody did.”

Perhaps the Obama administration’s saltiest notable is Vice President Joe Biden. After the President signed his healthcare-reform bill into law in 2009, Biden whispered to him, “This is a big fucking deal.”

McKay Hatch, a California teenager who founded a “No Cussing Club,” subsequently sent a “cuss jar” to the White House, hoping that Biden and the rest of Obama’s cabinet would clean up their commentary.

“Words have a lot of power,” Hatch told CBS News in 2010. “And that was one word that obviously offends people and people don’t like.”

Hatch and his fellow club members would likely side with John Wilkes, an 18th-century politician whose language was colorful, but rarely profane. Wilkes once participated in a verbal duel with insults with John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich:

Montagu: Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox.

Wilkes: That, sir, depends on whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.

Humor can remind an officeholder’s constituents that politics is, above all, human. Profanity should not come out of an politician’s mouth every other second, but when used with touches of reason and good timing, it can emphasize a message. In the words of esteemed humorist Mark Twain:

Let us swear while we may, for in Heaven it will not be allowed.

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