The top news about President Trump in the media this week was not his meeting with Congressional leaders or foreign dignitaries, but his alleged potty mouth. Let’s assume he spoke the curse words only one man in the room heard him say. Does that separate him from other presidents? Surprisingly, no. Here’s a list of cussing presidents, and one president’s cussing bird.
I will not use the words the presidents said here. But among the last two generations, there were fewer presidents who did not cuss than those who did. The list includes Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter (yes, Carter), Reagan, Clinton, Bush (George W.), and Obama. Within that era, only Eisenhower and Bush, Sr. are not on the list.
Obama described Romney with a form of the same word Trump allegedly said last week. Clinton used the same word in an interview with a Philadelphia radio station, leading up to the last presidential election. George W. Bush used a lesser word – but still profanity, to be sure – to describe New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. In 1983, Reagan used profanity while engaging in a shouting match with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau. Carter said he would kick Ted Kennedy’s back side in their primary election. Truman and John Kennedy used similar language in describing their opponent’s weaknesses. We don’t have enough space to list the profanities spewed by Johnson and Nixon.
Perhaps the oddest example of presidential profanity is that of Andrew Jackson. He once bought an African gray parrot named Poll for his wife. But when the first lady died, the parrot spent a lot of time with Old Hickory, and apparently soaked up some of the President’s language.
When Jackson died in 1845, thousands of people gathered to pay a final tribute – along with one talking parrot that seemed to be riled up by the crowds.
The Rev. William Menefee Norment, who presided over the funeral, described the scene.
“Before the sermon and while the crowd was gathering, a wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced to swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people. The bird let loose perfect gusts of cuss words, and many were horrified and awed at the bird’s lack of reverence.”
In the end, the bird refused to shut up, and had to be carried from the house.
Did President Trump say what one Democratic Senator said he said last week? We don’t know. We do know that the others in the room all say they didn’t hear it. But either way, we know Mr. Trump to be a man of inappropriate language, often given to offensive and vulgar speech.
This leads to two question. First, is he alone? No. Most presidents have used inappropriate, vulgar language, though few as often as Trump.
The more important question is this: What lessons do we learn from this? I see four.
Lesson #1 – We all fall short.
It is easy to point out Trump’s personal shortcomings, because he is followed by a camera 24 hours a day. Plus, he tweets too much. We never have to wonder. Yes, the man is human. He has flaws. But guess what? We all do. I wouldn’t want everything I’ve ever said or done to be paraded before the national media every day. President Trump is a sinner. But so was Mother Teresa. So is Billy Graham. So is the Pope. So are you. And so am I. The Bible says we all fall short (Romans 3:23).
Lesson #2 – We expect more from our leaders.
This is fair. Our president represents our nation on the world stage. It would be nice if our president would avoid offensive speech and vulgarity on all levels, in public, but also in private, because here’s the deal: Who we are in private always comes out in public. I’d prefer that none of our presidents use locker room talk. It’s a bad example for our kids and it reduces them from the stature of their office.
Lesson #3 – We should pray more than criticize.
It’s easy to criticize our leaders. Some make it really easy. But never criticize a man for whom you have not prayed. It is beneath the office of president for Mr. Trump to engage in vulgar speech. But it is also beneath the office of Christian for us to criticize him more than we pray for him.
Lesson #4 – Actions matter, too.
There’s an old joke about the man who had to pick between a cussing dentist who did really good work and a praying dentist who didn’t know how to fill a cavity. Guess who the patient picked! We want our leaders to reflect the best of character and integrity in all they do. That’s fair. But it is also fair to judge a president by the things that he actually does, not just according to his words or tweets. How many presidents have promised great things (words), then failed to deliver (actions)? Criticize this president for his profanity if that makes you feel better about yourself. But remember that while you are doing so, your retirement funds have probably grown by 25 percent since he took office, your wages are probably up, our world is actually safer, illegal immigration crossings are down, and the economy has seldom been so good. Yes, Trump’s words matter. But so do his actions.