Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Call it the potty-mouth primary.

With two Democratic presidential candidates uttering obscenities in public forums this month and the nine-candidate field trying to one-up each other in attacking President Bush, some observers are wondering whether political discourse is hitting new lows in coarseness.

Wesley Clark, talking to a man at a forum in New Hampshire this weekend, told the man live on C-SPAN that if Mr. Bush or Democrats questioned his commitment to the military and veterans, he would kick the spit out of them. Only the retired Army general didn’t say “spit.”

And Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, in an interview with Rolling Stone published this month, said he never thought the president would go and muck up reconstruction in Iraq. Only he didn’t say “muck.”

“The acceptable language has probably become slightly rawer over time, and maybe that’s what we’re seeing now,” said Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Little Book of Campaign Etiquette.”

He said campaigns are harsher or gentler depending on the “ideological heat of the moment,” and war often brings hotter times, meaning that 1968 would be much more heated than 1988.

“I do think we’re at a moment where discourse is rough — that is, a separation between positions, and people feel very strongly about them,” he said.

In this weekend’s incident, Mr. Clark was asked by the man what he would do if Mr. Bush or the Democrats challenged him on his support for veterans. After responding with his fighting words, Mr. Clark then said, “I hope that’s not on television.”

A television camera from C-SPAN, the cable public-programming network, had followed Mr. Clark as he worked the crowd, just as it has with other candidates throughout the campaign, and aired the exchange live. It since has been replayed by other TV news programs.

Clark campaign spokesman Bill Buck said Mr. Clark’s remark was that of a “military man and a fighter.”

“He’ll stand up to President Bush or any of the administration’s chicken hawks that attack his patriotism, military record or commitment to veterans,” he said.

He also said the comments weren’t any rougher than what Mr. Bush said about then-New York Times reporter Adam Clymer in the 2000 campaign. In that instance, Mr. Bush was on a stage and, in an exchange not heard by the crowd but picked up by a television microphone, leaned over to Dick Cheney and famously characterized the reporter’s personality.

Mr. Hess and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, both said it’s important to distinguish between utterances such as Mr. Bush’s, that were not meant to be public, and Mr. Kerry’s, which was.

“I felt that was quite deliberate, and done for a political purpose, and the calculation bothered me almost as much as the use of the word, which I can hear in any movie theater,” Mr. Hess said.

Ms. Jamieson said one part of the equation is that technology now allows listeners and viewers to get much closer to the action and hear things that used to be impossible to hear.

“It’s possible things were said in the past and said in the present. But now we hear them,” she said.

“By all accounts, John Kennedy in private had a rich and colorful vocabulary that was not reflected in public, which is the reason for saying you’ve got to make this public-private distinction,” she said.

Meanwhile, Howard Dean, former Vermont governor and the front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination, has been criticized for his mouth getting out ahead of the party. Most recently, he took some shots for saying he knew he was the front-runner “because I keep picking buckshot out of my rear end all the time.”

But Ms. Jamieson said Mr. Dean deserves a pass.

“The question is, what would you prefer he say? He’s already using a euphemism for a euphemism,” she said.

As for his harsh criticism of Mr. Bush, she said it doesn’t really compare with the stranger attacks of the modern political era, including Mr. Bush’s father calling Bill Clinton a “bozo” and Al Gore “ozone man” during the 1992 campaign.

“By historical markers, there’s nothing in this race that stands out,” she said.

About six years ago, her organization compiled a “vulgarity index” and catalogued the vulgarities used on the House and Senate floors during debates, including the same sort of words used by Mr. Clark this weekend.

Ms. Jamieson said this year’s campaign certainly hasn’t dropped below some of the exchanges that took place during the impeachment proceedings against Mr. Clinton.

Still, Mr. Hess said outside of campaigns, the overall content of political discussion has become emptier, and said he was struck by that point while looking at a recent best-seller nonfiction list.

“Five [of the top books] were people shouting at each other. Bill O’Reilly and Michael Moore, Al Franken and Sean Hannity,” he said. “Shouting from both sides. That to me is a carryover, maybe from talk radio, but more from 24-hour cable news.”

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