WTF Did Biden Just Say?

A brief history of bad language in Washington.

Joe Biden has proved that even after a year of debate over health care reform, not everything had been said. At a White House signing ceremony for the legislation, the vice president turned to the president and said, as he embraced Obama, “This is a big fucking deal.” The remark was intended to be private but was picked up by the microphone at the podium.

Let us now resolve that among the unenumerated duties of the vice president is to occasionally uncork an expletive in public. This is not Biden’s first time. At a ceremony announcing funding for his beloved Amtrak, he was greeted by a former colleague as “Mr. Vice President.” He replied, “Give me a fucking break.” Biden’s predecessor famously used the same epithet in an exchange with a senator. *  And Vice President George H.W. Bush, when asked how he did against Geraldine Ferraro in the vice-presidential debates in 1984, said, “We tried to kick a little ass.”

Biden’s remark may have been inappropriate for polite company, but it was apt. It summed up precisely the nature, scope and impact of the legislation better than any of the 627 words he had just spoken. He lavished such praise on the president, Obama was forced to stare at the floor just as my fabulous and accomplished children do when I tell everyone how fabulous and accomplished they are.

It is easy to lament Biden’s remark as yet another sign of our coarser modern age. But America has a long and honorable tradition of top elected officials using salty language. Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Bush and Clinton all used rough language. Jimmy Carter did, too. (Though his best moment may have come when he didn’t mean to: Speaking in Poland, he said “I want to know the Polish people,” which was translated into Polish as, “I want to have carnal knowledge of the Polish people.”) It is true that our first president was against it: Gen. George Washington issued “General Orders on Profanity” to his troops in 1776.

Ronald Reagan appears to be the modern president who kept it cleanest. He didn’t even write out swear words in his diary. (“I’ll hail it as a great bipartisan solution,” he wrote of his tax cutting plan. “H—l! It’s more than I thought we could get.”) But he did sometimes resort to them in private conversation.

We are more aware of this phenomenon now because there are more microphones (as opposed to private White House taping systems), and when something is picked up it rockets around the Web and the world. Even the reaction to the expletives is digital now. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged Biden’s remarks on Twitter: “And yes Mr. Vice President, you’re right.”

People of a more sensitive nature might disapprove of this language, but it is a fact of politics. At times, it is necessary. There are instances in private conversation when the expletive is simply the most efficient way to convey meaning. It was in this mode that former President George W. Bush conveyed his blunt feelings about the relationship between Syria and Hezbollah.

Ben Bradlee, in his introduction to his book Conversations With Kennedy, captured the distinction precisely: “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 soldier’s description of a broken-down Jeep. “The fucking fucker’s fucked. Surely there is no more succinct, or even graceful, four-word description of that particular state of affairs.”

This is the category that Vice President Biden’s locution today occupies. It is also in this vein that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel mostly operates, as chronicled expertly by Noam Scheiber of the New Republic (though the volume of Emanuel’s production does raise questions about the nature of the contest he seems to be competing in and what kind of prize he’s up for).

There is a distinction, however, between the use of vulgar terms and vulgarity. The latter goes too far—in grossing everyone out, or in unveiling the insecurities of the user, or in simply being too mean. Its greatest practitioners were LBJ and Nixon. LBJ, for example, was vulgar on the question of Macy’s window displays, Gerald Ford and gum chewing, tent etiquette and keepsakes obtained from subservient lawmakers. His salty language came directly at someone else’s expense. (President Obama might come under this category because he called Kanye West a “jackass,” but he can make the argument that he was simply stating a verifiable fact.)

Cheney falls more in the LBJ camp than Biden. When on the Senate floor he told Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy to go have intercourse with himself. Later, Cheney explained the experience had been a kind of purgative: “I expressed myself rather forcefully and felt better off after I had done it.”

Nixon is perhaps the greatest prizewinner in both categories. As a presidential candidate in 1960, he made an issue of Harry Truman’s use of bad words like “hell” and “son-of-a-bitch” that now hardly get a blink. “I’m very proud that President Eisenhower restored dignity and decency and, frankly, good language to the conduct of the presidency of the United States,” he said. (This may have been because Truman used bad words to talk about Nixon, whom he disliked intensely.)

Behind closed doors however, he seemed to uncork a new one with every turn of his reel-to-reel tape recorder. It makes sense when you think about it. He did start out as a vice president.

Correction, March 23, 2010: The article originally included mention of a profanity, aimed at a New York Times reporter, that the article incorrectly attributed to Dick Cheney. In fact, it was candidate Bush, not his running mate Cheney, who uttered the remark. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Become a fan of Slate  and  John Dickerson  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.