Tuesday, November 15, 2016

When Dirty Words Ousted a Washington Big Shot

Gather round, children, and learn about a man who was fired from a job in Washington, D.C., for verbal crudities that were mild compared to those that spew from the mouth of the man who will soon be sworn in as President of the United States.

The man’s name was Earl Butz and President Richard M. Nixon appointed him to be Secretary of Agriculture in the 1970s.  Butz transformed American farming — much for the worse, in the opinion of many (including this Iowa-reared midwesterner).  Butz championed corporate agriculture, food as big business, and his policies were the death knell for thousands of generations-old family farms in the country.  Hundreds off current problems, from high food prices to health issues like salmonella and “filth tolerances” in our food resulted from Butz’s initiatives.

But that hardly mattered.  What mattered was his foul mouth.  He liked to tell dirty and racist “jokes” when he thought he was off the record.  

One of his early eyebrow raisers was a joke about sexual intercourse between a dog and a skunk.  I’ve forgotten the punch line.

Then he enraged Cardinal Cook of the Catholic archdiocese of New York by telling a joke about Pope Paul VI’s statement in the Vatican regarding the church’s rules against forms of birth control.  Its punchline was: “You no playa da game, you no make-a da rules.”  

I remember this one well, because I was the news editor of the New York Times when he told it to a group of reporters after a news conference in which he announced an important change in Department of Agriculture policy regarding corn crops, which favored big food corporations over small farmers.  The Times’s agriculture reporter, Bill Robbins, rightly argued that his piece should be Page One news.  I was mulling the idea of fronting it when an edition of the New York News landed on my desk, its entire tabloid first page devoted to Butz’s Catholic-insulting joke.

“Use agencies (wire services),” I called to the national desk, which was scrambling to reach Robbins in Washington.  By the time they tracked him down, our second edition was on the presses with an AP sidebar to Robbins's corn policy story— on an inside page.  Robbins said Butz’s lame joke had been told at an impromptu palaver with reporters after the news conference and follow-up Q and A.  He said he and the other reporters agreed not to mention it because it had been said in private and had no bearing on the important policy change.

Gerald Ford had succeeded Nixon as President when Butz finally made his last and fatal gaffe as head of the nation’s farm policy agency.  Just after the Republican national convention of 1976, Butz was on a commercial airlines flight with a group of celebrities and newsmen when he said, “I’ll tell you what the Niggers want.  It’s three things: tight pussy, loose shoes and a warm place to shit.”

The quote leaked to various news media immediately.  Some attributed it to an unnamed “cabinet member” and attempted to clean it up.  The actual words circulated to news media as background, so that they could choose to publish them as spoken or use euphemisms. 

The ensuing public uproar forced Butz to resign in October of 1976.

Yes, children, 40 years ago that kind of talk could force a man out of the cabinet and into obscurity. Today such a man is about to become our Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief.

Ain’t progress wonderful?

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