Potty mouths

POTTY MOUTHS…. Politico had an interesting item today on politics and profanity. I’m just not sure if I agree with the premise.

President Barack Obama called rap star Kanye West “a jackass.” Vice President Joe Biden told a senator to “Gimme a f—ing break!” Economic adviser Christina Romer declared that Americans had yet to have their “holy s—” moment over the economy.

Those who pay attention to political rhetoric say an unusual amount of profanity has emanated from this White House — even without counting famously colorful White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. But before this statement becomes fodder for yet another partisan debate (with conservatives saying Obama is disgracing the presidency, and liberals that the media are once again being unfair), they quickly add that Team Obama is no crasser than administrations past. It’s just that they are being quoted more accurately.

What’s different, according to linguists, media analysts and reporters who’ve covered past administrations is the media: Networks and newspapers have become far more willing to run with quotes, video and audio of political figures and their aides saying things that never used to be repeated. They attribute the growth of the political potty mouth alternately to the proliferation of recording technologies; intense interest in all things Obama; the explosion of new media platforms that both circumvent and push traditional media while sharpening competition; a general coarsening of the public dialogue; or some combination of all of those factors.

There’s probably something to this, but it occurs to me coverage of, shall we say, “salty” language from the Bush era was also fairly common. The Politico piece notes George W. Bush, for example, referred to a journalist as a “major league asshole,” though he didn’t realize his comment would be picked up by a microphone.

But there are plenty of other examples that weren’t mentioned. When Bush decided to launch the war in Iraq, the then-president proclaimed, “F**k Saddam, we’re taking him out.” Two years later, Bush was overheard chatting about Hezbollah with British Prime Minister Tony Blair when the U.S. president said, “See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh*t and it’s over.” The quote, which didn’t really make any sense substantively, was broadcast quite a bit.

Similarly, when Dick Cheney ran into Pat Leahy on the Senate floor for a friendly gathering in 2004, the then-VP said, “Go f**k yourself.” John McCain is known for constantly cursing out his colleagues, and last year, discussing immigration policy, McCain screamed at Sen. John Cornyn, saying “F**k you! This is chickens**t stuff.” All of these quotes received at least some media attention.

Part of this, of course, is a reminder that politicians are hardly unique — regular ol’ folks tend to use language in everyday life that the FCC wouldn’t approve of. The typical American probably doesn’t scream at colleagues as much as John McCain does, but they do slip into PG13 territory with some regularity.

And if the point of the Politico piece is note that in previous generations, the media simply didn’t acknowledge or report on profanities/vulgarities, that’s certainly true. But I don’t think the media culture shifted recently — it seemed to happen during the Bush era.