My Sunday School buddies and I were endlessly entertained, during our wasted youth, by the Biblical account of Samson killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. (This is shocking, in retrospect, as the Philistines eventually became Palestinians.) The imagery was awesome, of course, as Samson was evidently a man of considerable strength. The Philistines had managed to take his weapons away and surround him, but Sam grabbed whatever came to hand and gave them the ancient version of “shock and awe.” A donkey’s jawbone isn’t a very substantial implement – especially as a weapon of close combat – but the Biblical strongman showed them what jawboning could really mean.
Being boys, however, we really cracked up over the wording in the King James Bible, which protestants then used. In the English vernacular of 1605, “ass” was common parlance for the animal we now politely call a “donkey.” But in the 1950s, “ass” was considered an impolite word – not really obscene or profane, but vaguely vulgar. Its use around the house could draw a reprimand from mom or dad. In school – heaven forbid! You might get away with it in the locker room, but even there the coach might intervene, as I once heard him do. “Some of these boys aren’t used to hearing that kind of talk,” he drawled, by way of instructing one potty-mouthed boy in our class.
The times have a-changed, however. Recently, that common vulgarity of my boyhood was elevated to high presidential art when our very own Dear Leader used it in a nationally televised interview. He said he needs to know “whose ass to kick,” by way of showing how really (really!) steamed he is at the seemingly unending disaster of the oil leak that threatens the Gulf of Mexico eco-system. Commentators and reporters have had a heyday with the video clip of the (reborn) potty-mouthed president showing how tough he really is. One pundit said Mr. Obama has been under pressure from the environmentalists in his party for being “too cool” about the disaster.
Whatever the case, Mr. Obama did break presidential tradition by using a vulgarity in public remarks. I know of nothing comparable in history. (Maybe his presidency will be “historical” after all, if not hysterical.) George W. Bush famously came under heavy fire when he was caught on a live mike, during the 2000 presidential campaign, referring to a reporter as a “major league asshole.” Big media commentators were shocked (shocked!) at such verbiage, even though “W” thought his descriptive name-calling was private. For a brief time, Democrats thought this was the smoking gun that would sink Mr. Bush’s candidacy, but the tempest in a pee-pot soon passed (so to speak).
Military leaders don’t usually feel as restrained in their language, except in operettas like HMS Pinafore, where the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph, had launched a rigorous Methodist campaign to clean up the navy’s language. (Mission Impossible, as ever was.) The Pinafore’s Captain Corcoran sings, “Bad language or abuse I never, never use, whatever the emergency” (What never?), but then runs afoul of Sir Joseph’s ban on cursing when he exclaims, “Damme!” after finding out his daughter is trying to elope with the ship’s foremast hand.
On the other hand, the generally unflappable General Omar Bradley exclaimed in rhetorical frustration, “Where in the hell did they get all this stuff?” when the German Army launched their surprise winter offensive out of the Ardennes in December 1944. (He quickly apologized to his staff for his language.) General Patton, however, famously went about cursing like a stable-boy – although he was said to read the Bible and pray on his knees every night. His soldiers respected him – if they didn’t exactly love him – because he was an effective general who led them to victories – a salient point often overlooked in surface analyses made by sophomoric journalists.
Vice-presidents seem largely immune from the presidential boundaries on vulgar or even obscene language. FDR’s vice-president John Nance Garner famously described his office as “not worth a pitcher of warm [spit].” (He actually used a different vulgarity.) Vice-president Dick Cheney dropped the f-bomb as the ultimate answer to critics, when it suited him, although accounts differ on exactly when and where he said what. One story has him saying, “Go f--- yourself,” to end an exchange with a critic. He obviously did not shrink from calling things by “their true Anglo-saxon names” (as my old dad used to say).
Good old loveable Joe Biden said, “This is a big f---ing deal,” to Mr. Obama, within live microphone range, when the president was about to announce the signing of his landmark Health Care Reform bill. No doubt Mr. Biden was caught up in the joy of the moment, feeling the need to be very expressive about the momentous occasion. (There is no record of whether Mr. Obama replied, “Hell yes!”) One commentator waggishly observed that selecting Joe Biden for vice-president was Mr. Obama’s best possible protection from assassination, as no sane persons (and probably very few insane persons) would want to elevate Mr. Biden to the presidency. But I digress…
There can be a certain shock value in words, when they are judiciously used. I once heard Evangelist Tony Campolo say to an audience of mostly evangelical Christians, “Last night 10,000 people starved to death, and most of you don’t give a damn! What’s more, most of you are more upset because I said ‘damn’ than you are because10,000 people starved to death…” He had a point, and he used a Biblical word, which Evangelicals consider impolite, to make it. On the other hand, one of my young relatives shocked her parents one night by observing that it was “damn dark.” (She thought it just meant “very.” Her remark won a place in the family’s lexicon of famous sayings.)
I confess to being far less concerned about Mr. Obama’s verbal-vulgarity than I am about how those words described his “leadership” style. It was a serious slip, but not because he used a word now considered naughty. Wittingly (or un-) Mr. Obama was telling the American public that he believes his role is to “kick [butt]” until a problem is solved. Maybe he thought that would impress an American public that he considers somewhat simple, but I think he might be mistaken there. Many of us have endured bosses who think you get things done by kicking “arse” (as the Brits call it), but most of us know that these are not the truly effective leaders.
Real leaders are strong, decisive, and inspiring. More often than not they are reasonable people – usually mild of speech and manner. They don’t go around bleep-bleeping things, and they waste no energy on histrionics and posturing. Samson didn’t go around talking about kicking butt. He picked up that jawbone and did some serious damage when it was called for. But Mr. Obama looks, for all the world, like an actor trying to look strong and leader-like – like a guy sent over from Central Casting to fill a role. In sports, his tough-guy approach is called “talkin’ trash.” Real players know that it is no substitute for being able to hit a curve-ball or run through the 5-hole behind a blocker. Nobody wins by talkin’ trash.
Had he been a true leader, Mr. Obama could have said something like this (about the oil-spill crisis):
“I’m upset about the ongoing oil-spill, as all Americans surely are. It’s tempting to try to find someone to blame or kick around. I could easily do that from this office, but it won’t really do anything to stop the oil – in fact it might keep us from stopping it, if we force BP and others to go on defense instead of going after the problem, full tilt. What I can do from here is make sure that all possible resources are brought to bear on the situation. We are doing that, to the best of our ability, but I will admit that we didn’t comprehend the scope of the problem at the very start. Beyond doing what we can, we need to trust the intelligence and skill of the people who know how to deal with such problems. And, frankly, we need to trust the Lord and keep a sense of proportion. This is a bad situation, but it isn’t the 9-11 attack or an atomic bomb. Oil is messy and it’s a little ugly when it washes up on beaches, but it’s a vital commodity for our country. We can’t just stop drilling, and those who think we can need to understand that it’s not possible. We’ll get the leak stopped and we’ll get everything cleaned up, but it will take some time. I’d like to suggest that we all take a deep breath, avoid saying stupid and unproductive things, and work together on this. We can fix it, and we will.”
We’ll know we have a real leader when the potty-talk stops and we start hearing words like this. I hope it will be soon. Pray that it is.