In a Today Show interview on June 7th, President Obama said that expert input he was getting about the oil spill would help him decide "whose ass to kick."
That was a first. By uttering that line, Obama crossed a line that no president ever crossed before, passing another milestone in the advance of vulgarity in our culture, and lowering public discourse to a new nadir.
Presidents have, of course, used vulgar words before. George Washington swore "until the leaves shook on the trees" during the Battle of Monmouth. Harry Truman was famously foul-mouthed, and the White House tapes revealed Richard Nixon to have wide vocabulary of vulgarities. Vice-Presidents Cheney and Biden famously dropped the F-bomb in offhand comments. The particular formulation that Obama uttered had previously been used by Jimmy Carter, who said he would "whip [Ted Kennedy's] ass" in the 1980 Democratic primaries, and by George H.W. Bush, who spoke of "kicking ass" at his vice-presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.
But those were all candid, casual, private musings, not meant for public hearing. President Obama's interview, by contrast, was the first time that any president consciously chose to utter a vulgar expression into a live microphone, knowing -- nay, intending -- that it would be broadcast far and wide.
The first vulgarity ever uttered in a mainstream movie, as everyone knows, was Clark Gable's last line in Gone With the Wind. I don't know when the threshold was first traversed on TV, but the first vulgarities I ever heard over that medium were hell and damn on All in the Family. The first time I heard ass (other than in reportage about President Carter's prediction for the 1980 primaries) was on The Simpsons. Sucks -- innocent enough when standing alone, but with an implied predicate that makes it vulgar -- first reared its head on Saturday Night Live. Today, South Park and The Daily Show routinely rub viewers' faces in shit and fuck. So far, those last two words always get censored with a bleep. But we all know the day is coming soon when the censor will just give up.
And now you can add Obama's Today Show interview to the list: the first time you heard a president deliberately use vulgar language on the air. It's one more step in the relentless march of the language of the gutter, and one more mark against the dignity of the presidency.