Curses! The days of calumny and bellicosity remain a cherished tradition in the United States Senate.
By historical standards, Vice President Cheney's grunted command this week on the floor of the Senate for Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to contort himself into an impossible sexual position was most economical. And, he told Fox News yesterday, "I felt better after I said it." (He's a man of few words, and "sorry" isn't one of them.)
History reveals senators have discovered many ingenious ways to express Cheney's sentiment without resorting to short, pungent Anglo-Saxonisms. Most have involved florid paragraphs of rebuke. But pistols and blood have been drawn. Canes have been used.
Way back, Thomas Jefferson knew it would come to this. In his classic Manual of Parliamentary Practice, Jefferson, then vice president of the fledgling republic, warned: "No one is to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another; nor to stand up or interrupt him" and so on. From its beginning, the United States Senate was so preoccupied with decorum that 10 of its first 20 rules detailed proper behavior.
But for the longest time, senators resisted adopting Rule 19 -- "No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator," certainly a subjective and imprecise standard.
That changed after 1902, when jockeying between the distinguished gentlemen from South Carolina resulted in their censure. The junior senator, John McLaurin, proclaimed the senior senator, Ben Tillman, guilty of "a willful, malicious and deliberate lie." Tillman promptly responded with a square punch in the jaw. The ensuing Senate-floor brawl looked like a modern bench-clearing fracas in major league baseball.
Nearly 50 years before, a Massachusetts senator had been beaten unconscious, three days after he took to the floor to denounce two Democratic senators he believed to be pro-slavery. Illinois's Stephen Douglas, Charles Sumner had said, was a "noise-some, squat and nameless animal." He then accused South Carolina's Andrew Butler of taking "a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean," he added, "the harlot, Slavery." That brought House member Preston Brooks in to defend Butler, striking Sumner about the head so furiously with a cane that the senator was carried bloody and unconscious from the chamber.
Cheney's remark this week -- he serves as president of the Senate -- arrived with such explosiveness because anger in the Senate is always to be deeply masked.
"Part of the much vaunted civility is -- how shall I say this? -- that gentlemen speak to gentlemen in terms that are gentlemanly," says Senate historian Richard Baker. "That there should be no barriers to understanding and communication that might happen with profane language."
One of Baker's personal favorite examples of this verbal legerdemain dates to 1925. Sen. Richard Ernst (R-Ky.) went after Sen. James Couzens (R-Mich.) with this: "I wish to know if there be any way under the rules of the Senate whereby I can, without breaking those rules, and without offending senators about me, call a member a willful, malicious, wicked liar? Is there any way of doing that?" Ernst was forced to take his seat, which he could do smugly, point well made.
And this from the legendary Huey Long of Louisiana, referring to Sen. Pat Harrison (D-Miss.) in 1934: "We all have our way of working. One is just as honest as the other. One is, catch your friend in trouble, stab him in the back and drink his blood. The other is, stand by your friend and try to heal his wounds." Down went Long, forced to sit for "imputing the motive of Harrison drinking the blood of his friend."
In "Dark Horse," his book about President Garfield, Washington lawyer Ken Ackerman writes that one "can search the Congressional Record and Globe through two hundred years of debate and never see a member of Congress insult a colleague so directly, brutally and articulately, on the record, in public, looking directly at him across the room" as Maine Republican James Blaine did in the 1880s to New York Republican Roscoe Conkling, his longtime nemesis. The eruption was caused by something utterly trivial. It still rings.
"As for the gentleman's cruel sarcasm," Blaine said, an eye to the galleries, waving dismissively at his opponent, "I hope he will not be too severe. The contempt of that large-minded gentleman is so wilting; his haughty disdain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, supereminent, overpowering, turkeygobbler strut has been so crushing to myself and all members of this House that I know it was an act of the greatest temerity for me to venture upon a controversy with him."
He was just warming up. Seizing on a newspaper story that had compared Conkling to a deceased great statesman, Blaine used it for ridicule. "The gentleman [Conkling] took it seriously, and it has given his strut additional pomposity. The resemblance is great. It is striking. Hyperion to a satyr, Thersites to Hercules, mud to marble, dunghill to diamond, a singed cat to a Bengal tiger, a whining puppy to a roaring lion. Shade of the mighty [Henry Winder] Davis? Forgive the almost profanation of that jocose satire!"
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.