F-Bombs Away! Chris Matthews, Cursing and Character

In the midst of commending the presidential candidacy of Rudy Giuliani on NBC radio’s “Imus in the Morning” show, the MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews dropped the F-Bomb: “We love good mayors, because we love our cities and Giuliani is a city guy . . . I’m so sick of Southern guys with ranches running this country. I want a guy to run for president who doesn’t have a f***ing ranch”


Imus’s response?

IMUS: “What were you swearing for?”
MATTHEWS: “I don’t know. I get excited.”
IMUS: “I already told you it was a lame observation. I mean, if you were on Meet the Press or the Today show, would you do that?”
IMUS: “No, of course not.”
MATTHEWS: “I think I said something like that on my show the other day.”
IMUS: “Your show? Nobody watches your show.”
MATTHEWS: “Would you stop?”
IMUS: “I actually have several million people in advertisements I could lose as a result and we love you. There’s something wrong with you.”

In his apparent order of importance, Imus
(1) asked if his people had bleeped the comment;
(2) asked Matthews why he was swearing;
(3) asked Matthews if he would do that on Meet the Press or the Today Show;
(4) said that he could lose millions of “people and advertisers”; and
(5) told Matthews, “There’s something wrong with you.” Matthews, effecting contrition, said that he was “resorting to [his] normal self.

While the cursing was bleeped out from the radio broadcast, it was missed by the MSNBC simulcast. (One presumes, horror of horrors, that he Matthews was heard by impressionable youths, tomorrow’s leaders, along with their moms and dads, who were watching Imus.)

Oh, you say that you missed Matthews’ use of the f*** word? You’re were not aware of it? Not surprising. The Media coverage was minimal compared to how they covered the Vice President Dick Cheney to Sen. Patrick Leahy comment, which did not take place on TV or radio.


Shortly after Dick Cheney told Senator Pat Leahy to “Go f*** yourself,” on July 11, 2004, Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Late Edition asked the Vice President’s wife, Lynn, if she was surprised by his use of the f-word. She replied that it was “very unusual . . . but he was sorely tried, if I may say so, by someone attacking his integrity and then pretending to be his best friend.” She added that “the way Dick did it, it was a private comment. If so, you wouldn’t know it from the amount of publicity that it’s garnered, but John Kerry used the same word in an on-the-record interview about the president of the United States,” which, she said, no one had “paid much attention to.”

When Blitzer asked her if she had taken him “to the woodshed,” she said that she “can understand, when people are pushed to extremes, that in a private setting they might say something unusual.”

I fully agree with Ms. Cheney’s point that the use of the f-word is not always inappropriate, and that there are times when it suits the situation.

(At this point I feel that I should disclose that I have on several occasions I have said “f*** you” to Senator Leahy, or told him to “go f*** yourself,” at least to his image on TV during his interrogation of Supreme Court nominees. In fact, after watching the senator do his purse-lipped bit for so many years, I no longer wait for the inevitable invitation to react to his muttering. Dr. Pavlov would have been most interested.)


Now Chris Matthews is a bright, articulate and thought provoking-guy, who presumably has a clean record when it comes to cursing. So, what are we to take from f-word slip?

Before trying to speak with Chris Matthews about this, I was certain that “f***ing” is as regular a word in the Matthews lexicon as it is in mine. It is a useful word, one that’s clear and understood in and out of context. I’ve never seen it as an indicator (let alone, a definer) of character, even in part. But I did want to see what Matthews thought and said about the Cheney retort to Leahy. I also wanted to know what he had against ranchers.

Alas, his handlers said that he had no desire to discuss his gaffe, and an interview request was rejected.

The Matthews interview rejection suggests that Matthews thinks he feels that about his use of the F-word might not be a career builder, should it become more widely known. Thus Matthews’s utterance is treated totally differently from Cheney’s. Matthews no doubt surmises that a good part of the public would disapprove and see it as a character flaw.

Let’s reconsider the quaint topic of cursing.

At one end of the curse spectrum are words that are openly used most everywhere, like “damn,” and, on the other end, words that are vulgarisms, such as the f-word. Parents, most of them anyway, try to teach their children not to curse and or to take their Lord’s name in vain. In the 1940s, soap-in-the-mouth was a common punishment and deterrent. I’m sure that some of these parents want to forestall a habit that they believe will do the child some harm as an adult, and that others believe cussing to be sinful. And yet, I think that the prime parental motivator is the sense (read: fear) that a parent of a cursing child will be regarded as a moral failure.


The character connection with cursing is typical when it comes to the developing child. Consider this: ” Coaches are teachers and responsible for teaching good character as well as the skills of the sport. Their classrooms are the practice and playing fields. Would it be appropriate for a classroom teacher to curse? No, just as it isn’t for a coach.” (LSUAgCenter.com).

Implication? If it were Phil Jackson expressing himself to Kobe Bryant, nothing along the cussing line would be inappropriate, and Jackson’s character would not be impugned.

And, whether you believe it or not, there is, in Lake Forest, Illinois, a Cuss Control Academy, which teaches that swearing “discloses a lack of character,” (square this with Admiral Farragut’s “Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead!”) and “doesn’t communicate clearly.” Now that last part is just plain silly, and contrary to what most of us know to be true. Nothing spoken could have conveyed a meaning any clearer than the Cheney’s remarks to Leahy. Yet, for $1500 in the Chicago area and $2500 plus expenses elsewhere, you or your group can get a 30-minute to one-hour presentation on the evils of swearing from Cuss Control Academy’s President, James O’Connor.

On the other hand, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Woodward suggests that profanity has something useful to offer to the spoken word, as Dana Milbank’s wrote in The Washington Post last week in, “Star Character Witnesses at Libby Trial.” At the Scooter Libby trial session the day before, the jury was treated to a recording of nine lines of Woodward’s interview with then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, four of which were laced with expletives. (In baseball, that’s a .444 batting average. Pretty f***ing good!) With apparent disappointment that the expletives were deleted, Woodward testified, “[i]n the raw [the interview] has a little more fire.”


Woodward may have been unaware that Finally, cussing get can youget you into legal hot water. Take a look at Bob Greene’s 1999 article in Jewish World Review, “The Case of the Cursing Canoeist.” Greene tells us that in 1998 one Timothy Boomer fell from a canoe and began to curse, at high volume, which caused a nearby mother to cover her young daughter’s ears and leave the area in a rush. Boomer was arrested for violating a Michigan law that penalized cursing in the presence of children. Boomer was later convicted and was sentenced to four days of community service and the choice of a $75 fine or three days in jail. The community service? Working in a child-care program.

Greene gives us the text of the law Boomer violated: “Sec. 337. Indecent, etc., language in presence of women or children — Any person who shall use any indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar or insulting language in the presence or hearing of any woman or child shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” So, it’s not just children, but women as well.

According to Greene, “No offense to any women out there who take pride in not cussing — but a case can be made that women these days are among the dirtiest talkers in the history of the planet.”

So, with a whole lot of cussing going on, what are we to conclude? Is there a character connection? Recent events show that the likelihood a character flaw assessment may be tied to the political persuasion of the person doing the cussing. That said, we all know that cursing is not limited to persons of bad character. But that gets us nowhere. The more interesting enterprise is to figure out why, cursing in certain settings (on the Imus show, on the floor of the Senate) causes so many people react with indignation.


I say it’s fear. Millions of people have been taught from birth that bad things will happen to them if they curse. And yet they cannot miss the cussing that goes on all around them, without repercussions. How does this compute with the lessons they were taught by the parents they love? Ultimately, I believe, they react with an unarticulated realization. Unless they make others pay for using language forbidden to them, they’ll be forced to face the unhappy fact that they need not have pissed away so many delicious opportunities to express themselves the way the really wanted – – when only a cuss word would do.

Julian Tepper is a talk radio host and attorney whose office is in Bethesda, MD. He has five kids, all well-raised, some of whom curse not irregularly, but always in context.


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