Good Shit

Why Bush should swear more.

Bush’s S-bomb is among the topics John Dickerson discusses in this week’s Political Gabfest audio program. Click here to listen.

Damn, I wish the president would swear more. When his private conversation with Tony Blair was picked up yesterday on an open microphone, I was heartened, not shocked. “See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over,” Bush said. Lebanon is in flames. Iraq is in chaos. Iran is enriching. Isn’t this a time for swearing?

Shouldn’t we hope that when he’s in private, Bush is throwing around the barnyard epithets? I don’t think anyone would have been comforted if his aside to Tony Blair had been about weight lifting or the soufflé they had for lunch. Tony, did you see what Jacques was wearing?

Everyone has fixated on the word “shit,” with cable commentators and news anchors expressing “concern” about the language “controversy.” (For language purists, of course, the real problem is the apparent misuse of the word irony.) According to some, the single dirty word is more proof that Bush is a dumb cowboy, but Bush’s unguarded remarks actually make the opposite case. They show that he understands the awkward steps of diplomacy and that, while he may be frustrated, he’s remarkably cool and multilateral for the supposed simple fellow from Midland. (The reaction has actually been fairly mild. If this were a Democratic president, the forces of moral rectitude would be swarming: What about the children?)

In the overplayed sentence, Bush expressed sentiments that seem incontrovertibly true. Hezbollah is up to some shit. Syria, which equips Hezbollah and was involved in the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, does need to stop that shit *. Whether Israel would really end its shit if Hezbollah halts its shit is a matter open to debate, but presumably as Israel’s closest ally, Bush is in a good position to guess Israel’s response.

Next there is the matter of the United Nations—the “they” the president was talking about. You don’t have to be a Bush-lover to be frustrated with the United Nations. Kofi Annan isn’t going to stop the violence with his usual blizzard of gauzy language, excessive deference, and diplomatic bubble wrap. Bush expressed just the right degree of frustration about the secretary-general. “What about Kofi Annan?” he asked Blair. “I don’t like the sequence of it. His attitude is basically cease-fire and everything else happens.” I thought Bush didn’t care about the United Nations or what Kofi Annan thought? If Bush were really living up to the stereotype, in his off-guard moment wouldn’t we have expected him to call Annan a sissy and huff and bluster about the uselessness of the U.N.? Or, if Blair were really the Bush poodle, wouldn’t Bush be telling Blair to slap Kofi upside the head? Instead, the president said to his closest ally, in front of whom he was presumably being his most authentic self: “I feel like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad and make something happen.” Cover your ears! George Bush is expressing his feelings, and his feelings are that he wants the United Nations to engage in more diplomacy. Why, he sounds like a Democrat!

In the history of presidential potty mouths, Bush is a piker. The office of the presidency has a long and storied history of coarse talk. Clinton seemed to make it three-dimensional. Presidents Johnson and Nixon were expletive virtuosos. President Bush would have to stop riding the mountain bike and devote his time to competitive swearing to match their proficiency. When Ben Bradlee wrote his book Conversations With Kennedy, he put the swearing in his chats with JFK in context: “This record is sprinkled with what some will consider vulgarity. They may be shocked. Others, like Kennedy and like myself, whose vocabularies were formed in the crucible of life in the World War II Navy in the Pacific Ocean, will understand instinctively. There is nothing inherently vulgar in the legendary soldiers’ description of a broken-down Jeep. ‘The fucking fucker’s fucked.’ ” Once again, Kennedy’s words are as powerful today as they were 40 years ago. They apply perfectly to the situation in the Middle East.

By contrast, Bush has only been caught swearing twice in the last six years, an amazing drought given that his presidency is essentially live-blogged. He can’t even ask about a bathroom break without it going all over the world. When he’s captured offering a true thing sharply stated, we should applaud. His candor yesterday isn’t the problem—the lack of candor every other day is.

Correction, July 19, 2006: The article originally and incorrectly omitted that Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was not in office when he was killed. Return to the corrected sentence.