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Perishable Thoughts —
Taking A Stand On Presidential Language

“I’m frustrated with myself, with our team…I’m here on television saying I screwed up…”

— President Barack Obama
Interview with NBC’s Brian Williams
February 3, 2009

Political leaders are not just responsible for enacting policies; through their conduct they affect the tone of political discourse in the country and the manners and mores that define the character of a people.

So who, precisely, decided that the country will be better off if politicians show how “common” they are by the use of earthy language?

It is a bi-partisan issue. During the campaign John McCain apologized to David Letterman for cancelling an appearance on his show by publicly announcing that “I screwed up.”

Now President Obama explains his failure to both properly vet candidates and to judge the impact of their mistakes by declaring, “I screwed up.”

Of course, this has been going on for a long time. Back in 1990, in his The New York Times Magazine “On Language” column, titled Screwing Up, William Safire, pointed out that President George H.W. Bush was fond of the word:

…when the President of the United States was asked about our soldiers’ search of the Nicaraguan Ambassador’s residence during the invasion of Panama, he was quoted as replying, “It’s a screw-up and they have expressed their regrets that it happened.”

The locution as a past participle is also a Presidential favorite. In another setting, Mr. Bush kiddingly told students at the University of Tennessee that while he was delivering the State of the Union address, they were watching the Vols playing Vanderbilt in basketball, and “some of you had your priorities all screwed up.”

Safire noted some objections…

Frank Mankiewicz, a bluenosed public relations executive in Washington, writes: “Screw up, it must be noted, is the euphemism for the eponymous SNAFU.”… “You are too young to remember World War II,” continues Mr. Mankiewicz, “but surely your older brother must have told you about the acronymic frisson that snafu gave otherwise proper men and women to use the word.”

Safire concluded that the word would become commonplace:

In sum, the Presidential use of screw up, in conjunction with frequent newspaper quotation of the term with no concern for its sexual etymology, has legitimized screw up as verb and screwup as noun; this in turn may one day lessen the sting of the slang meaning of the central word without its gentling use of up, but let’s let a generation go by.

It is just about a generation later, and Safire was probably correct. Still, is “change” always a matter of laxer standards? Must we constantly define decency down?

The Jr. Pundits are age 5 and age 7, and we don’t want them to use words like “screwed.” Is that the way President Obama and his wife want their children to speak?

Surely the President and his wife want their children to be engaged with the news and to read and watch what the President says and does. So why does the President elect to speak this way? What would be wrong with simply saying, “I made a mistake”?

Maybe there aren’t that many people alive who remember why presidents shouldn’t use even minor vulgarities in public discourse. But the country would be better off if more people did.

In the end, the country is a better place to the extent that the people are better people, so statecraft should inevitably be concerned with the character of the people. Through their conduct, government officials can help to elevate or depress what is acceptable behavior. Standards of dress and speech… all play into this.

Perhaps a change we can believe in would be one whereby our president considers thoughtfully his role as head of state and uses the ”bully pulpit” of the presidency to inspire the children… and the adults… of America by conducting himself with a standard of behavior that others might aspire to obtain and that, if obtained, would nudge America, at least a little, to being a better, more civil, society.


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