June 19th, 2019


The coarsening of politics

Dana Milbank

By Dana Milbank

Published December 15, 2014

"The report is full of crap."

Thus spake Dick Cheney, on Fox News this week, when talking about the Senate intelligence committee's report on torture that occurred during his vice presidency.

The line might have been funny, if Cheney were the funny sort, because the report talks about treatment of detainees that involved "rectal feeding."

But Cheney is not the funny sort. More likely he was inspired by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who went on CNN last month to give his thoughts on a report by the (Republican-controlled) House intelligence committee debunking conspiracy theories surrounding the Benghazi attacks.

"I think the report is full of crap," he declared.

To both gentlemen, I pose a question: WTF?

Certainly, the language could be worse. "Crap" is not on the late George Carlin's list of seven words you can't say on television. But the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says the phrase is "considered vulgar," and my fifth-grade daughter says it would be frowned upon in class.

The sin isn't the language itself but that its routine use contributes to a coarsening of politics and a tendency to substitute name-calling for argument — furthering an environment in which a lawmaker can shout, "You lie," at the president during the State of the Union address and one House member can shout, "Baby killer," at another on the chamber floor.

The phrase used by the president's senior advisers to describe the Obama Doctrine is "don't do stupid [expletive]" — a synonym for crap straight from Carlin's list.

The president himself, on NBC's "Today" show, said he wanted to know "whose [arse] to kick" after the BP oil spill.

A newly released e-mail from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has the nation's top law-enforcement official saying that certain Justice Department prosecutors could "kiss my a[rse]."

In October, Vice President Biden, in a speech at Harvard University, said of the vice presidency: "Isn't that a b-tch?"

Previously, Biden was heard on a live mike telling Obama the health-care bill was a "big f----ing deal " and telling a senator who called him "Mr. Vice President" to "give me a f----ing break." Those weren't meant to be public, but the same can't be said of the time the vice president, with Pennsylvania firefighters, used the phrase "no bull [forbidden Carlin word]" and when he told a Milwaukee custard-shop manager to stop "being a smartass."

A friend of mine keeps a "swear jar" in her household so that users of unauthorized French must pay up. If swear jars were placed at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the federal debt could be retired by Christmas.

Salty talk isn't new to politics, of course. One difference now is political figures' blue language is more likely to be caught on tape and less likely to be cleaned up before it goes public. George W. Bush in 2000 was caught on a hot mike calling a New York Times reporter a "major league [bad word for anus]." Back in the '90s, the University of Pennsylvania compiled a Vulgarity Index of words used on the House floor. But the top violations, words such as hell and stupid, seem quaint now. Lyndon B. Johnson had a famously foul mouth and used the word "piss" a lot, but that was generally in private. In public, he created the President's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography.

The commission, were it around today, might do a report on Cheney, who on the Senate floor in 2004 told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), now the Senate president pro tempore, to "f--- yourself." This resulted in the only time I got one of Carlin's seven words into the paper.

Cheney's "full of crap" phrase seems to be flowing like sewage through the body politic. The Washington Post's Jaime Fuller did a search last month and came up with some 60 uses of the phrase in public life, many of them recent and on cable television. She listed an additional nine times Fox News's Sean Hannity alone has used the phrase, and that list was "abridged."

Here's Dennis Miller on Fox's top show, "The O'Reilly Factor," this year: "Everybody is full of crap. The coin of the realm is being full of crap now. The best people — being full of crap are our leaders and our superstars . . . They're all full of crap." With so much desensitization, it's no wonder a Fox News poll in 2010 found that 57 percent of people did not think Biden's "big f----ing deal" line was offensive.

Maybe it's time to reinstate Johnson's obscenity commission. That would scare the crap out of some people.

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Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation's capital.