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
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
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
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.