A Brief History of Political Profanity

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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.)...

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