A Brief History of Presidential Profanity
When President Obama called Mitt Romney a "bullshitter" in the pages of Rolling Stone earlier this year, it set off a brief firestorm. Defenders of the Republican candidate were shocked – shocked! – that the man holding the highest office in the land would resort to such language. In truth, the halls of the White House (like nearly every other house in the country, with the apparent exception of Romney's) have heard no shortage of profanity over the decades. It's a dirty job, leading the free world. Sometimes it takes a few dirty words. Read on for a brief history of presidential (and vice-presidential, and presidential candidate) profanity.
Honest Abe evidently loved a good off-color joke. In Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis bends the ears of an anxious telegraph crew with one of the president's favorite shaggy-dog tales, recounting the tale of Ethan Allen encountering a portrait of George Washington in an outhouse in England after the Revolutionary War. His hosts were eager to see the reaction of their visitor, who stumped them by approving: "There is nothing to make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of General George Washington."
Our 44th president has a very vivid vocabulary. Obama famously called Kanye West a "jackass," and on the audiobook version of his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, you can hear the future president mimicking an old high-school friend who evidently knew his Richard Pryor: "You know that guy ain't shit. Sorry-ass motherfucker ain't got nothing on me." But it was in the pages of Rolling Stone that Obama really drew the ire of the pious, calling opponent Mitt Romney a "bullshitter." Sometimes the dirty word is the most precise.
Calling the GOP's presidential candidate a "bullshitter" was that much more shocking because Romney himself has quite possibly never uttered such a humdinger in his life. His anachronistic language – all "gosh darns" and "good griefs" – is straight out of Leave It to Beaver. The former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives has recalled the ex-governor telling bothersome opponents where they could go: "H-E-double hockey sticks."
When President Obama signed the historic legislation that ensured health care coverage for all Americans, his vice president leaned over with a few commemorative words befitting the solemn occasion. "This is a big fucking deal," said Biden.
Back in 2004, then-Vice President Cheney reportedly told Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to "go fuck [himself]" after the two got into a testy argument about Cheney's ties to the defense contractor Halliburton. Later, Cheney told comedian Dennis Miller, "That's sort of the best thing I ever did."
George W. Bush
While campaigning for president in 2000, George W. Bush leaned over to his running mate, Dick Cheney, as they waited at the podium for a rally to begin and commented on the presence of New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. Believing he had an audience of one, Bush called Clymer a "major-league asshole." Trouble was, the microphone in front of them was already live, and many in the audience heard the offhand comment loud and clear. After he'd taken office, Bush used his sense of humor to offer an apology of sorts when he taped a message for the press corps attending an annual dinner, calling Clymer a "major league ass . . . et."
Before riding to President Obama's rescue with his Democratic National Convention speech in September, Bill Clinton wasn't exactly on the best of terms with the current prez. When Obama beat Hillary Clinton in South Carolina's Democratic primary in 2008, the former president compared the victory to Jesse Jackson's primary wins back in the Eighties. The Obama campaign hinted that the analogy was racially tinged, and Clinton shot back: "I don't think I should take any shit from anybody on that, do you?"
The Watergate tapes put the phrase "expletive deleted" on the map – White House protesters held signs that read "Impeach the (Expletive Deleted)!" The tapes covered a lot more mundane moments than the wiretapping operation that got the president impeached. In one, Nixon is watching his beloved Redskins attempt to complete a major comeback against the Dallas Cowboys. "Son of a bitch," he mutters when the push falls short.
"People said my language was bad," recalled Nixon, "but Jesus, you should have heard LBJ." Few if any presidents have been quite as coarse as Johnson, who famously consulted with cabinet members while he sat on the crapper with the door open. His language was salted with profanity. "I do know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad," he once said.
John F. Kennedy
Eloquent at the podium, JFK could swear like a sailor (which he was, of course) away from the microphone. When word leaked that the Air Force had spent $5000 to furnish a maternity suite for Jackie Kennedy at Otis Air Force Base, the president knew the expenditure would be used as a political football. "This is obviously a fuck-up," he fumed to a hapless general over the phone.
The folksy "Give 'Em Hell Harry" was beloved by some and tsk-tsked by others for the colorful language he attributed to his youthful days working on the Santa Fe railroad, when he slept in hobo camps. In Truman's eyes, General Douglas MacArthur was a "dumb son of a bitch," and Nixon was "a shifty-eyed goddamned liar."
"I never did give them hell," he once reminisced. "I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell." It was an earlier, simpler time.