A Brief History of Political Profanity

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President Obama on the Today show on June 8, 2010

President Obama wants to kick some ass. During a June 8 interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show, Obama said he had been talking to experts about the BP oil spill so he could learn enough information to find out "whose ass to kick." The comment wasn't particularly vulgar — we've heard worse from Vice President Joe Biden — but coarse language always seems shocking when it comes from the mouth of a President.

Most examples of political profanity come from the 20th century and later. Earlier politicians didn't have better manners, they just had fewer of their unofficial remarks recorded. For all we know, Thomas Jefferson could have cursed up a blue streak when he debated the possible revisions to the Declaration of Independence with the Second Continental Congress. We'll never know; the drafting committee didn't keep notes on its meetings. Abraham Lincoln was never caught on tape insulting anyone — mainly because audiotape hadn't been invented yet.

Until recently, vulgar outbursts were often cleaned up before they were reported to the public. Jack Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Vice President from 1933 to 1941, once said the job of VP was "not worth a pitcher of warm piss." In news reports, however, his last word was often changed to spit. After the recording of interviews and speeches became an everyday occurrence, word substitution largely vanished and political discourse was never the same. In 1973, journalist Merle Miller published a collection of taped conversations and interviews with Harry S. Truman, in which the deceased former President was quoted calling General MacArthur a "dumb son of a bitch." (John F. Kennedy used the same term to refer to Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.)

Lyndon B. Johnson had a famously dirty mouth. He chided Canada's Lester Pearson for his anti-Vietnam stance by saying, "You pissed on my rug," and once likened the difference between a Senator and a Representative to "the difference between chicken salad and chicken s___." He even considered removing J. Edgar Hoover as FBI chief but changed his mind, reasoning that "it's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in."

Yet despite Johnson's many outbursts, Richard Nixon holds the unofficial record for being the most openly profane U.S. President — probably because he recorded much of what he said in the Oval Office. In a taped 1971 conversation between the President and two of his aides, Nixon called Mexicans "dishonest," said that blacks lived "like a bunch of dogs" and that San Francisco was full of "fags" and "decorators." And that was just one conversation.

These days, nearly everything is either recorded, broadcast, tweeted or put on YouTube. Yet for some reason, politicians still haven't learned to keep their mouths shut. In 1993, British Prime Minister John Major was caught on tape referring to three members of his Cabinet as "a shower of bastards." The same thing happened to then Texas Governor George W. Bush in 2000, when he called veteran New York Times reporter Adam Clymer "a major league asshole." And Vice President Dick Cheney knew others could hear him when he shouted "Go f___ yourself" to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor. (Of that incident, Cheney later said, "It was sort of the best thing I ever did.") In 2003, Senator John Kerry talked to Rolling Stone about his decision to vote for the Iraq war, saying, "Did I expect George Bush to f___ it up as badly as he did? I don't think anybody did." And in March, Biden happily called the health care reform bill a "big f______ deal," while last year Obama called Kanye West a "jackass."

So while Obama could have been more eloquent with his language on culpability for the Gulf disaster, he hardly broke new political ground with his threats of retaliation. And as for the oil leak? Maybe the responsible parties could use a little kick in the — well, you know.