Time may worship language, as Auden insisted, but language doesn’t worship presidents, particularly not the mealy-mouthed presidents we’ve been served by these last thirty or so years. The present incumbent, George W. Bush, was almost strangled by his handlers at first, so desperate were they to save him from his own ignorance; the American public, it soon turned out, liked his spunk and didn’t care about his ignorance. They were perfectly willing to let him learn on the job, as, in some measure, he has.
Apropos of Bushes and language I remember a dinner in the 1980s at the home of Joe Alsop, the acerbic WASP columnist, who was railing about presidential euphemisms: Joe said no man deserved to be president of the United States who could be so prissy as to use the phrase “deep doo-doo,” a formulation the forty-first president, George H.W. Bush, occasionally employed. James Baker III, then probably secretary of state, was at the dinner but held aloof from the doo-doo debate; he was saving himself for Florida 2000, although he didn’t know it.
The question of sexually charged (or, it may be, uncharged) speech in our political culture is a delicate one, especially so in the matter of the F- word—fuck—long since ubiquitous in private discourse but rarely employed publicly by American politicians, not even by the easily unbuttoned Bill Clinton. When cornered by his inquisitors in the matter of Monica Lewinsky he could have just said he didn’t fuck her, which would have spared him (and us) months of ridiculous hair-splitting about whether oral sex is sex or manual sex is sex or semen on a dress is sex or cigar sex is sex, or whatever. If Clinton had just put his faith in the F-word he could have retained his ascendancy over the press, who would have had to beep him, or else resort to dashes; and he would have also backed off the Congress, who would hardly have wanted to hold public hearings to explore the nuances of the F-word, the whole point of which is that it doesn’t have any. But Clinton’s gut failed him; he just said he didn’t “have sex” with the young lady, which is about as potent as saying he didn’t have oysters that evening, or didn’t even have another piece of pie.
It’s interesting to consider what President Clinton’s two most famously dick-driven predecessors, JFK and LBJ, would have thought of this timidity or tepidity or chickenheartedness. Certainly both would have cheerfully plowed through amber waves of interns without giving the matter a thought. I doubt they would have been such clucks as to deny that oral sex or manual sex etc. were sex; rather, they might have suggested that these things added up to an excellent salad bar, tasty, but not likely to have discouraged them from enjoying the basic, timeless dish. Probably they would have laughed their heads off …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.