Earl Butz, History’s Victim

How the gears of racial progress tore up Nixon’s Agriculture secretary.

Earl L. Butz

The obituaries for Earl Butz—who went to his reward Feb. 2 at the enviable age of 98—all note that he will be remembered less for his accomplishments as Agriculture secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford than for the two off-color jokes that got him fired. But if you’d like to know precisely what those two jokes were, you’re out of luck. Here, for instance, is how the Associated Press described the jokes:

Mr. Butz was forced to resign in October 1976 after telling a joke that was derogatory to blacks. The slur was overheard by John W. Dean III, the White House counsel to Nixon who was jailed in the Watergate scandal, and Mr. Dean’s report on it was published in Rolling Stone magazine.Two years earlier, Mr. Butz apologized to the Vatican after criticizing the Roman Catholic Church’s stand on birth control by using a mock Italian accent while referring to the pope.

The New York Times obit established that Butz had a reputation for bigotry and vulgarity well before the two incidents that ended his tour at Agriculture. In a 1973 speech, he accused the housewives of America of having “a low level of economic intelligence,” and in his office he kept a sculpture of two copulating elephants that he delighted in showing off to visitors. But the Times’ description of Butz’s two fatal wisecracks, like the AP’s, eschewed direct quotation. In the 1974 incident, the Times reported, “Butz, using a mock Italian dialect, criticized on Pope Paul VI’s opposition to using artificial birth control as a solution to world food problems.” In the 1976 incident, the Times said, Butz “made a remark in which he described blacks as ‘coloreds’ who wanted only three things — satisfying sex, loose shoes and a warm bathroom — desires that Mr. Butz listed in obscene and scatological terms.”

I recognize that family-oriented news organizations like the AP and the Times do not publish words they know to be coarse and deeply insulting to particular ethnic groups, nationalities, and religions. But I also think that if you’re going to define the long life of a public man by the most vile things he is known to have said—a fair judgment in this instance—you bear some obligation to reveal what those vile things were. They weren’t a secret at the time of Butz’s firing; Time magazine reported them, albeit with some dashes substituting for letters in the dirtiest words, in full.

So, what did the man say?

1.) In 1974, a reporter asked Butz about Pope Paul VI’s opposition to using artificial contraception as a means to assuage world hunger. Butz replied, in effect, that the pope’s rejection of this approach was of little interest because Pope Paul had already stated, in a 1968 encyclical, that artificial contraception violated church law under any circumstances. Here’s how he put it: “He no play-a da game, he no make-a da rules.” The outrage over this remark has always struck me as overdone. Yes, it was mildly offensive to Italian-Americans, but no more so than, say, Chico Marx (who was not Italian) calling out “Getta your tootsie-frootsie ice cream” in A Day at the Races, a still-popular film that has seldom attracted picketers. That the particular Italian Butz mocked with his Chico Marx patter happened to be the pontiff obviously upped the ante, but I think it’s a stretch to call the jibe anti-Catholic. The joke was a little bit naughty and made a valid political point, which is why it took a second offense for Butz to get fired.2.) The 1976 joke was made in the presence of Pat Boone, Sonny Bono (no longer with Cher, but not yet a member of Congress), and John Dean. The four men were traveling first class on a commercial flight to California after the Republican National Convention. The ever-earnest Boone asked Butz why Republicans were unable to attract more blacks to their party. Rather than explain that Nixon’s “southern strategy” deliberately drew disaffected white voters away from the Democratic party with coded racist messages likely to offend blacks, Butz decided to lighten the mood with an extremely racist (not to mention very old) joke. “The only thing the coloreds are looking for in life,” Butz quipped, “are tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.”Dean was not known as a keeper of confidences. He’d provided crucial testimony against the Nixon White House in the Watergate scandal, and it happened that he was working on a piece about the convention for Rolling Stone. Butz knew this, but such was his confidence in the warm embrace of his conviviality that he made the wisecrack anyway. Dean put it in his story, and Butz was promptly fired.

The outrage over Butz’s joke was, of course, entirely appropriate. It was also epochal. Before this incident, it was not at all unusual for respectable white people to tell and laugh at jokes that portrayed black men as lazy, shiftless, and priapic. A mere five years earlier, Nixon himself had been recorded in the Oval Office telling Donald Rumsfeld, “Most of them, basically, are just out of the trees. Now let’s face it, they are.” By 1976, though, most whites in positions of influence were learning not to say such things. The smarter ones were even learning, albeit more slowly, not to believe such things.

Butz was not one of the smarter ones. He was a bigot and, even then, at 66, not a young man. And so he got caught in a paradigm shift. Before Butz, there remained a snickering tolerance among the powerful for jokes denigrating the humanity of blacks, Jews, and homosexuals. After Butz—well, the jokes about gays limped along for awhile, but it finally sank in that racism and anti-Semitism would seldom be tolerated, even in private. You could no longer assume your fellow whites would protect you for telling a joke insulting to blacks, and you could no longer assume your fellow blacks would protect you for telling a joke insulting to Jews. Jesse Jackson learned the latter lesson in 1984 when a black reporter for the Washington Post passed along to another reporter the news that he’d heard Jackson refer to Jews in private as “Hymie,” and refer to New York City as “Hymietown.”

If the price of that change was a slightly elevated reluctance within the mainstream press to explain fully what brought it about, maybe that isn’t so terrible.

A few years after he left the government, Butz got busted for tax evasion. So if you’re tempted to feel sorry for the guy for getting torn up by historical forces he never understood, give it a rest. The man was a creep.

[Update, Feb. 5: A reader informs me, as kindly as he can manage, that I read too much subtle wit into Butz’s wisecrack about the pope. I fear he may be right. According to this reader, Butz was not commenting on Pope Paul’s moresweeping opposition to artificial contraception, which rendered his narrower opposition with regard to food shortages a foregone conclusion. Rather, this reader says, Butz was making a coarse and simpleminded joke about the pope’s own celibacy. Since the pope doesn’t engage in sexual intercourse (“da game”), he has no right to tell other people whether they may use contraception or not when they engage in sexual intercourse (“da rules”). I must admit that this interpretation, which eluded me for 34 years, is much more in keeping with a sense of humor animated by the loose-shoes joke and by a sculpture of two copulating elephants. It also undermines my claim that Butz’s remark was not anti-Catholic. Assuming the reader’s interpretation is correct, Butz’s pope jibe was at the very least a much nastier and more personal insult than I realized.]