My nine-year-old daughter looked at the front page of the paper, and her eyes grew wide:
The president said “ass”?
She swallowed the A-word, because it is, after all, the A-word. I nodded; he said that. She was silent for a while, digesting the information. Presidents, after all, are part of the great Pantheon of Authority, standing over the school principal, teachers, the pastor, police, and perhaps the mailman. To consider them using bad words reordered everything. Unless …
“He didn’t mean donkey,” she said, this being the only possible explanation. I shook my head. It will now be difficult to tell her not to use that word; it will now be a matter of time before my wife says, “Well, your daughter was sounding presidential today,” and it won’t be a reference to mankind’s universal aspirations. Unless you include the desire to kick BP’s tuckus, which seems fairly widespread.
Daughter asked for context, and was doubly nonplussed: he doesn’t know? True: if there’s one thing a child expects the president to know, it’s Everything. Adults may share the confusion. Adults may wonder if we will need a blue-ribbon panel to investigate just which fundaments require the application of the POTUS heel. (They will report back in six months and recommend federal oversight of the shoe industry.)
Barack Obama is probably the last guy you’d think would introduce “ass” into the mainstream political discourse. It’s like Spock announcing he wants to “knock boots” — a expression both crude and banal coming from someone renowned for dispassionate cool. But the idea that the president should confine himself to polite terminology is one of those antiquated chocks that prohibit true, honest expression, and if the post-Boomer culture has taught us any-effin-thing, it’s that authentic people use earthy language, authentically, and only the spats-and-monocle crowd insist on the verbal equivalent of the raised pinky and other useless vestiges of high-tea manners.
Bill Maher took it a bit farther on his TV show, “This Week’s Reason to Cancel HBO”:
I thought when we elected a black president, we were going to get a black president. You know, this [BP oil spill] is where I want a real black president. I want him in a meeting with the BP CEOs, you know, where he lifts up his shirt so you can see the gun in his pants. That’s — (in black man voice) “we’ve got a motherfu**ing problem here?” Shoot somebody in the foot.
The gross reductive identification of race with gangster culture is permitted for Mr. Maher, since he holds approved views on a variety of other issues, just as Helen Thomas’ nasty spews were okay because she was a Trailblazing Doyenne who had the correct ideas about tax rates and war and premature extraction of fetuses from the womb. But at the heart of Maher’s image of authentic blackness is part of the leftist creed: the trivial niceties of civilization are a barrier to the most important goal of human endeavor, self-expression. Lenny died for your sins. The hero isn’t the man who invents the traffic signal, it’s Ratso Rizzo who crosses against the light, bangs on a hood of a car that dares to nose into the intersection, and yells “I’m walkin’ here!”
One can make too much of these things — something I hope to be proving before your very eyes — and one must admit there are precedents. Churchill’s “V” was something of a vulgarism — up yours Adolf, was how people read the gesture. (He didn’t know the extra meaning, some allege.) Bush the Elder employed the A-word in a post-game wrap-up of his Ferraro debate; speaking to longshoremen, he said he “tried to kick a little ass” the previous night, and it came off as wincingly inauthentic, like a preppy attempting a soul-brother handshake. For all we know Bush was a cusser supreme, but his image was such that you imagined him saying “Oh golly gumdrops heck it all!” when his plane was shot down. Privately, Clinton was probably a blue-streak man; Bush the Latter, for all his piety, seemed like a fellow who’d rip out a tart Texas cuss. Cheney, we know, could bark out an effenheimer if the moment called for it.
But the key word is “privately,” and here’s where the sophomoric charge of hypocrisy comes in. If someone swears in private but sticks to mild oaths in public, they’re a hypocrite, and that makes some people channel their Holden Caulfield: phony! So when the president finally let some steam leak out from his exquisitely calibrated first-class temperament, he was being real. He was being authentic.
Even then, it seemed utterly false.