Sunday, February 4, 2024

Flashback 2012: Barack Obama goes blue

     Last week, Joe Biden referred to Donald Trump as a "sick fuck" and a "fucking asshole." While I would argue that, considering the man in question, those phrases are mere dry, neutral descriptions, and no mere naughty words could touch the obscenity of The Former Guy's assault on the Capitol and democracy. But it did raise the issue of presidential propriety, and made me think of simpler, more decent times under a far, far better human being.

     The end of the interview is the most perilous part, as any politician will tell you and Barack Obama learned anew earlier this month.
As Rolling Stone journalists were leaving the Oval Office Oct. 11, one editor told Obama that his 6-year-old is supporting him.
     “You know, kids have good instincts,” Obama replied. “They look at the other guy and say, ‘Well, that’s a bullshitter, I can tell.’ ”
     Generally true, though kids can also have staggeringly bad instincts — they climb into old refrigerators, leap off roofs with towels pinned around their necks, set fires to school offices.
     Obama’s own instincts, though, were a little off in his unguarded slur of his opponent, Mitt Romney, because as much as our Internet-driven culture has shattered the old standards of polite political discourse — to the extent that they ever really existed — calling your opponent a dirty word, no matter how true, is like handing a stick to your foes and dipping your head to be struck by it.
     As soon as the story broke Thursday, the Drudge Report had a photo of Obama with the offending phrase headlined under him, leaving doubt whether it is referring to Romney, well-known as a chronic liar, or Obama himself.
     It is rare when a president swears to good effect — Harry Truman’s pledge to “give ’em hell” perhaps. Usually the mud he flings spatters back on himself. Such as the general public revulsion felt when the White House transcripts not only showed Nixon as a Machiavellian character plotting to unseat his enemies, but swearing a blue streak while doing so.
     This isn’t even a new problem for Obama. The president was cited on it in his first year in the White House — calling Kanye West a “jackass” while Vice President Joe Biden was quoted saying “Give me a fucking break.” And then there was his chief of staff, the famously potty-mouthed Rahm Emanuel.
     Three years ago, the thinking was that presidents weren’t swearing more, only the media was letting it through more. “Team Obama is no more crasser than administrations past,” Politico wrote in 2009. “It’s just that they are being quoted more accurately.”
     Oh right, blame the media. Only in this case, it’s a fair criticism — if it is a criticism. We’re not publicists — if the president wants to use what once was charmingly called “foul language,” who are we to clean it up? Toward what end? Maybe the problem isn’t that the president swears, but that the old-school media doesn’t, as much, yet.
     Forty years ago, Nixon’s curses were shielded from the public — the famous “expletive deleted” of the Watergate transcripts. Now it is mostly mainstream newspapers that feel the need to dash and obscure, while obscenity — often captured on video — is offered in all its unbleeped glory on the walls of the Internet. Yet the world does not crumble.
     And to be fair, the media has not been consistent in its sense of decorum. The word “bulls---” — as opposed to the thing itself — has already appeared seven times in the Sun-Times over the past 25 years, according to our computer library, the first time being in 1985, in a story from Forbes magazine about corporate firings.
     Every generation flatters itself that it has reached some new low of coarseness, when in reality a certain set of words is perpetually kept in reserve, in a roped-off taboo section of the dictionary, to be used under specific situations where a certain kind of emphasis or impact is needed. Obama let his guard down at the end of his Rolling Stone interview, and provided one of the million meaningless memes that have so defined this election, little moments each side can grab and assign meaning to — the Democrats will use the president’s slip into salty waters as a sign of his humanity, an example of his growing confidence, his newfound aggressiveness. The Republicans will use it as Exhibit No. 12,434 as to why Barack Obama is unfit to be president of the United States, focusing on the earthiness without ever touching upon the critique it makes of their candidate, the most thoroughly recognized prevaricator since Pinocchio.
     I swear a lot, when appropriate and sometimes when not, though never here, of course, but find it a useful arrow to have in my quiver. So while I don’t fault Obama for letting it fly, it seems to embody the second-rate campaign he has run in 2012, at least when compared to 2008, lacking the inspiring speeches, the exhortation to hope and progress, a stumbling slog that required periodic rescue from more skillful campaigners such as Bill Clinton and — gulp — Biden.
     So I’m fairly confident that in a little less than three months from now, when Obama is doing a very different kind of swearing — the swearing in kind — this moment will be just another bump in his bumpy ride to a second term. That said, it will rattle us for the next day or so, until the next bump comes along.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, October 25, 2012


  1. I was so hopeful when President Obama was elected. When he won the second term, I saw a vile wickedness emerge in this nation, in his opposition. Suddenly, mean and rude behavior towards him was okay. It escalated during Chump. (I mean all due disrespect when I address him with this moniker). I see it becoming worse and worse every day. This has been going on, non-stop, since 2015. It is now 2024. Nothing has been accomplished in the last nine years except a lot of fighting. If their goal is to wear me down, then it’s working. I don’t know how much more this nation can take.

    1. "Nothing has been accomplished" scans as "I'm not paying attention." Even Trump got the vaccine done. And Biden has been brilliant — his handling of Ukraine. The infrastructure package. He just happens to be old, and people can't forgive that.

    2. "He just happens to be old, and young people can't forgive that." Fixed it for you, Mr. S.

      There are huge Facebook pages, with hundreds of thousands of members, on which young folks spew their hatred for both Boomers and Biden.
      They troll the nostalgia pages that are supposedly aimed at older folks, at which they actually poste statements like "All Boomers have Alzheimer's" and "I want to see all the Boomers dead, and as soon as possible." Zyklon B, anyone?

      And angry Boomers throw it right back in the unlined faces of the "Zoomers"...resulting in pissing contests without end, and that nobody ever wins. Sprinkled throughout these combat zones are countless memes that denigrate and belittle Joe Biden, and they're mainly age-based. There appears to be an enormous amount of generational hatred between young and old, but it also seems to be flying under the radar, and nobody's really acknowledging it, or talking about it.

      It was totally unacceptable to denigrate Obama for his skin-tone, but it's still okay to belittle Biden for having had too many birthdays. Ageism is the last acceptable form of bigotry left.

      Sure, millions of older people also despise Biden. That's a given. But too many Millennials and Gen Z's also do as well, for being old. If they chose not to either sit out the election or throw their vote away on some third--party mope, the result will be the same...Joe's defeat. The generational disdain for Biden may prove to be his downfall. And ours.

      And there doesn't seem to be any real solution, because the youngsters are not going to listen to reason, or to arguments for voting in their own best interests. Their minds are already made up, so don't bother confusing them with facts.

  2. The earliest Bowdlerizing of a politician's words that I know of is when the press cleaned up FDR's VP John Nance Garner's crack that "being vice President isn't worth a warm bucket of piss" & turned that into a "warm bucket of spit".
    Amazingly, I still still "spit" used in articles & columns to this day.

  3. I'm not a big fan of cursing. But it becomes normalized when you're surrounded by it and hear it daily. A president is also a human being and reflects what they hear from society. Along these same lines, have you ever received feedback on the title of this newsletter?

    1. Yes, people invariably laugh when they hear the name. A few, in the beginning, complained, and I would direct them to the "For the offended" section:

  4. I Swear often and sometimes inappropriately , but rarely in a professional situation. much like the substitution of spit my monicker was adopted as an attempt to tone down colorful language. It seems fairly common to do this to avoid presenting as course. A few years ago my spouse explained to me the term: see you next Tuesday, for one of the words perpetually held in reserve . It gave me quite a chuckle.

    I'd prefer if our leaders swore less. though I never sheilded my children from profanity . I felt it was my job to teach them to swear and their grandmothers to teach them when it was inappropriate

    1. Sometimes a little emphasis is necessary. The taboo word, the one that is almost never acceptable in mixed company, is still appropriate at times. Marjorie Taylor Greene will always be the Congresswoman undergoing neurological trauma, until the taboo is lifted. Refresh me, FME means what?

    2. I learned to swear at an early age, around ten or so. I attended a day camp that held its activities in an overgrown and neglected suburban park. The campers were given the task of cleaning up the park.

      We had to cut down head-high weeds on hot summer days, and rake them into piles and carry them away. This did not sit well with many of the kids, and the muggy air soon turned blue with profanity. To be one of the boys, I cussed my head off.

      I was never punished for my swearing, or even admonished, by my parents. On the otherwise mild-mannered and placid mother swore like a trooper...and I picked up a lot of my vocabulary from her. So did our parakeet. I kid you not.

  5. Swearing may be uncouth, but hecky darn just doesn't seem appropriate to the current situation in our country.

    1. LOL I'm going to start using "hecky darn"

    2. In 1955, my 7th grade teacher, Sr. Mary Patrick, who wasn't a whole lot older than her students and apparently and surprisingly cognizant of 7th graders' lingo, suggested "fudge" as an all-purpose substitute for obscenities. Only we prudes took her up on it.


  6. I mistrust a leader who tries to make us believe he isn't a normal human being. Hopefully, one with better instincts and more caring than most, but nevertheless, human, and an occasional colorful word is just that- human. And I say- so what? DJT does it, on the other hand, with meanness and hatred and that's NOT ok.


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