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Cheney's Colorful Comment
June 30, 2004
By Max Udargo

Vice President Dick Cheney shocked me last week. In an ugly exchange on the Senate floor with Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, the vice president told the senator to fuck himself.

The use of an obscene word is not what shocked me. We've known at least since the release of the Watergate tapes that political figures who maintain an air of propriety in public often use crude language in private conversations. They don't call it the old-boy network for nothing, and it's no surprise they talk like boys during private conversations, and therefore it's no surprise that their salty language would spill over into public, official contexts from time to time.

Using a crude word to attack another politician is something a little more serious, because it has a certain viciousness attached to it, but it is forgivable by the same logic cited above. Men who often use obscene language in private might let loose with an obscenity-powered riposte in the heat of political confrontation. Such impulsive violations of official civility are unacceptable, but they are not unheard of, and they are not a matter for great concern if they are handled properly. When such accidents happen, the offender simply apologizes, thus reaffirming his respect for - and commitment to - civil discourse, and we all move on.

But what is shocking is that the vice president and many of his Republican supporters are not the least bit apologetic about the vulgar comment, but are proudly defending it. Republicans in the Senate and Cheney himself seem rather aroused by the vice president's daring and manly expression of political petulance.

As the story leaked out last week, Republican senators defended Cheney's expletive with non sequiturs. Senator Orrin Hatch said, "I don't blame anybody for standing up for their own integrity." Lamar Alexander informed us that, "I think the vice president said what he meant to say and felt better after he said it."

Alexander's words were echoed by Cheney later in a Fox News interview. "I expressed myself rather forcefully, felt better after I had done it." Acknowledging the support of Republican senators, he added, "I think that a lot of my colleagues felt that what I had said badly needed to be said, that it was long overdue." Backed up by his peers, puffed up with adolescent pride, Cheney was obviously pleasantly surprised with himself. "Ordinarily, I don't express myself in strong terms, but I thought it was appropriate here."

Appropriate? Badly needing to be said? Long overdue? Fuck yourself? If Vice President Cheney had reason to be unhappy with something Senator Leahy had said or done, and if there was a need for "forceful" language, Cheney should know there are ways to forcefully express oneself without using four-letter words. In fact, "fuck yourself" conveys impotent exasperation rather than anything truly forceful. The only force it has is the very creepy feeling induced by hearing the Vice President of the United States say something so crass and hateful to a United States Senator on the floor of the United States Senate.

It's disturbing to see such adolescent thinking among middle-aged men, and even more so among men in positions of great power. And Cheney took it even further in his Fox News interview when he tried to explain his anger at Senator Leahy. Leahy had been making charges of cronyism between Cheney and Halliburton. But when the "fuck yourself" incident occurred, Leahy had approached Cheney on the floor of the Senate and tried to make small talk. This set Cheney off. "I don't like the fact that after he had [made his charges of cronyism], then he wanted to act like, you know, everything's peaches and cream…[H]e is the kind of individual who will make those kinds of charges and then come after you as though he's your best friend."

At the heart of the concept of civility is the notion of being respectful and polite to those whom we don't like. Being civil toward our friends is not a difficult task, as it goes along naturally with friendly feelings. But the requirement of behaving like civil, mature adults entails maintaining polite and respectful intercourse with the people with whom we have conflicts. I suspect this is the only reason Senator Leahy approached the vice president on the Senate floor that day, and he expected Cheney to respond with the same restraint and spirit of comity, regardless of the fact they are political enemies.

There is something sadly childish in Cheney's notion that the people in Washington who treat him with respect and propriety do so because they are his friends, and that there is an inexcusable inconsistency in those who treat him with politeness while challenging him politically.

An adult understands that the purpose of civility is to maintain an environment that allows for communication, compromise, cooperation and reconciliation between people who are currently at odds with each other. Such an environment is an assumed pre-condition for our system of government. Deliberative government is impossible in the absence of this environment. It seems to me it would be important that the Vice President of the United States understand this.

Of course, l'affaire de fuck highlights many familiar themes of the Bush Administration. There is the pathological aversion to admitting wrong and apologizing, the sputtering inarticulateness, the arrogant assumption of being beyond criticism, and the contempt for all who defy the will of God as expressed, however clumsily, through the sermons of Pastor Bush. But it also highlights a wider problem for which we can't blame the current administration entirely: the breakdown of civil discourse in this country. This is something about which all of us who care about this country should be concerned. There can be no America without civil discourse. In the absence of civil discourse, America's institutions and traditions make no sense.

Some see Cheney's potty-mouth as another example of Republican hypocrisy with regard to their pet issues of family values and morality. The party that obsesses about the moral decay of the country does seem to provide a steady stream of examples of that decay from within its own ranks. But more important than a debate about Republican hypocrisy is bipartisan agreement on maintaining a place in American politics where discourse remains at a civil and mature level. And if that place isn't the floor of the United States Senate, where is it?

When Cheney blurted out his obscenity last week, it meant nothing. It was an accident, a slip of the tongue. When he defended it on Fox News, it became a disgrace, an affront to American values and to the sanctity of the U.S. Senate..

Vice President Cheney owes us all an apology. For the good of our country he needs to reaffirm his respect for - and commitment to - civil discourse. The Republican leaders who are currently cheering him on need to stop and reflect on their responsibility to behave as adults and maintain a spirit of comity in government.

I'm not holding my breath.

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