Ah, those days are no more. In the politics of the past few decades, senators excoriate each other with some pith.
John Tower once saw Strom Thurmond, the notorious womanizer, and mentioned that when he died, they would need a baseball bat to properly press all of him into the coffin. But Thurmond did not even perceive this as an insult. During a Democratic senatorial retreat in 1999, Robert Torricelli told fellow New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg that he would dismember a manly portion of his fellow member. When Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) suggested that Oregon's Mark Hatfield be removed from a committee chairmanship, Bob Kerrey quipped, "Santorum. Is that Latin for [vulgar term for rectum]?"
Earlier this week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) blasted a Leahy proposal to subpoena Justice Department memos on Abu Ghraib prison interrogations as a "dumb-ass idea." But that reference paled beside Hatch's indignation during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Angry at charges against Thomas brought by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Hatch sputtered, "If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you in Massachusetts." That left Hatch backpedaling later, insisting he had not meant to refer to the Chappaquiddick controversy.
For the most part, says CNN correspondent Ed Henry, who broke the Cheney story, "What you have seen all the time is senators couching it in 'the distinguished senator' form, but they are trying to tear each other's eyes out."
Cheney's directive "will go down as one of the all-time greats," says Henry, "because Mr. Cheney dropped all the pleasantries altogether and got to the point." And although the incident has provoked much hand-wringing over a new nadir in congressional civility, Cheney's choice words have a bipartisan ring to them.
"It goes without saying that people use these words all the time," says Jesse Sheidlower, head of the Oxford English Dictionary's North American unit and author of "The F Word."
"And this is supposed to be shocking? The idea that this is the first time anybody has used it in a political context is just ludicrous."
So perhaps Americans need not mourn the days of the heated, obsolete exchange. In Sheidlower's view, perhaps we're actually growing closer, healing the divide, bound by a common, shared language.
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