What is it about the vice president's job and salty talk?
By JOEL CONNELLY
Vice President Joe Biden is rarely terse and to the point, but his off-mike aside on the health care bill to President Obama on Tuesday -- "This is a (bleepin') big deal!" -- is already up on T-shirts produced by Zazzie.com
What is it with America's potty-mouthed vice presidents? The office is famous for eliciting cuss words and gestures for which the Federal Communications Commission would slap fines if heard or seen at the Grammys.
Biden is exuberantly profane.
At one of the Obama administration's stultifying announcements of stimulus grants, a former Senate colleague addressed him as "Mr. Vice President." Biden grinned and replied, "Give me a (bleepin') break."
Usually, however, second bananas have cussed to vent anger and frustration with the job. The most famous example is Vice President John Nance Garner, a once-powerful House Speaker eclipsed by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"The vice presidency isn't worth a pitcher of warm piss," Garner advised Lyndon Johnson, as LBJ wondered whether to join John F. Kennedy on the ticket. The last word was sanitized in the press as "spit."
After he was jettisoned from the 1976 Republican ticket, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was pressed into service for the man who took his place -- Bob Dole. When protesters delivered a derogatory gesture at one stop, Rocky lifted the middle finger of his right hand in response.
Richard Nixon is undeniably the most sanctimonious -- perhaps hypocritical -- man to hold the job.
Debating Kennedy in the 1960 election, Nixon decried a salty-tongued remark by ex-President Harry Truman, saying that Dwight Eisenhower had "restored dignity, decency, and frankly good language, to the conduct of the presidency." Nixon pledged to maintain the "dignity of the office."
Backstage, minutes later, Nixon blew up at Kennedy, "That (bleeping) bastard. He wasn't supposed to use notes."
Conservative columnist Robert Novak witnessed a tired Nixon inspecting the set for his campaign-closing TV telethon. The staging displeased the vice president.
"Can't you stupid bastards do anything right?" cursed Nixon.
"Nixon continued his profanity-laced rant up to airtime, but not a word appeared in print or on the air . . . That's the way journalism was in those day," Novak wrote in his memoir "The Prince of Darkness."
Well, that was then. Microphones and hand-held phones pick up everything nowadays. And every statement is fair game. Ditto remarks made in such previously protected sinecures as the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Vice President Dick Cheney, declining to pose for a picture, told Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont: "Go (bleep) yourself."
Cheney not only confirmed the remark, but told an interviewer that it was "merited at the time."
A little bit of profanity can unite the ticket in a presidential race.
At a Naperville, Ill., rally in 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush spotted a veteran political scribe, turned to Cheney, and said: "There's Adam Clymer, major league (bleep) from the New York Times."
"Oh yeah, he is, big time," Cheney replied.
Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush tried to play tough guy, especially in the face of press taunts over his cheerleading for Ronald Reagan.
Bush arrived at a meeting with longshoremen a day after debating the Democrats' vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro. "I think we did kick a little ass last night," he said.
As Novak noted, the press once airbrushed such remarks -- most famously Lyndon Johnson's profane language and off-color stories.
No more. The bestseller "Game Change," an inside look at the 2008 campaign, has Hillary Clinton cussing up a storm at meetings with feuding senior nabobs from her campaign.
It quotes Sen. John McCain unleashing the f-bomb at his wife Cindy: "McCain let out the stream of sharp epithets, both middle fingers raised and extended, barking in his wife's face," the book relates. "Cindy burst into tears but, really, she should have been used to it by now."
Increasingly, the country is used to it.
Overhead microphones pick up whispers. Senior staff aides tattle to reporters, knowing that somebody else's "spin" will get in the media if theirs does not. Jettisoned advisers write tell-all memoirs. Late-night comedians relive gaffes.
Hence, Joe Biden's use of a dirty word to describe a "big deal" has inspired mirth rather than shock, as well as a wry response from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs: "And yes, Mr. Vice President, you're right."