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for people who care about the West

Potty-mouths have a long history in Western politics

Donald Trump is just the latest politician to resort to vulgar language.

 

A pre-school teacher buddy of mine thinks Donald Trump ought to be scolded for being such a potty-mouth. She thinks no politician in history has uttered such deliberately shocking phrases. This was after Trump said that Hillary "is a loser and should be schlonged."

She might be right about Trump, but politicians making shocking statements uttered are nothing new in the West. Some candidates have even been elected anyway – think Davis Waite, a member of the Populist Party who served as Colorado governor from 1893-'95.

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Davis Hanson Waite, eighth governor of the U.S. state of Colorado.
Waite was given to saying things like: "It is better, infinitely better, that blood should flow up to the horses' bridles than that our national liberties should be destroyed." That got attention 123 years ago. When candidates throw off outrageous statements like that, the press often goes "tut-tut," but that never seems to stop the shock talk. The Denver press teased Waite unmercifully for his wild statements and he was inevitably nicknamed "old bloody bridles." Yet he won the governorship, though he lost it badly just two years later.

I'm hard to shock, but I was surprised to hear Trump use that particular slur about Hillary. I once used a similar word while arguing politics in the Caboose Bar next to the G.M.& O. yards in Bloomington, Illinois. That taught a crass kid (me) a lesson I couldn't help but notice as I was pushed off my barstool. These days, Trump may get away with it (especially if he keeps at it the way he's doing), but my pre-school teacher friend is probably not alone in labeling him a potty-mouth.

What I do miss in this campaign are the funny and clever statements politicians used to make. Even Waite could be funny back in his day, saying of one old enemy, "He wouldn't steal the hotel stove -- at least not till it cooled off." In 1948, President Harry Truman was giving a train platform speech in Salida, Colorado, when someone in the crowd hollered, "Give 'em hell, Harry!" Truman replied, "I tell the truth and those rich, son-of-a-gun bitchers think it's hell." The local conservative paper edited this to a "son of a gun" remark but the Leadville Democrat ran it in full.

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Donald Trump speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland in 2013.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

We have come a long way from the days when "son-of-a-gun bitchers" would be regarded as unprintable. Really clever insults can be worth a chuckle. They may even keep us from taking the whole thing too seriously. Take Will Rogers' quip: "I don't belong to any organized political party: I'm a Democrat." One of my favorite political quotes is from the political satirist P.J. O'Rourke, who quipped: "The Democrats are the party of government activism, the party that says government can make you richer, smarter, taller and get the chickweed out of your lawn. ...Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work, and then get elected and prove it."

Criticism can sting. I once gave a talk about heating a new road and bridge building with biomass – chopped up trees -- instead of fossil fuels, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I had the equation all worked out. I was serious! Except for one old codger who thought a boiler would cost too much, my audience wandered off to the bar. It was obvious I'd misjudged an audience of hard working, blue-collar guys even though I knew them. Journalist Ed Quillen was there. His proposed headline: "Local politician gives talk intended for the Environmental Ladies League to out-of-work loggers in Rollinsville bar."

There are a hundred questions facing us as a nation that desperately need airing. Instead, much of the media remain fixated on why Trump said that Hillary should get hammered by the Yiddish word for a male appendage. That kind of shock tactic worked at least once for Colorado Gov. Waite; then voters inevitably got tired of it. In defense of Trump, it is true that he seems to be the only Republican candidate who supports federal stewardship of public lands, not turning them over to the states. Trump said, "I want to keep the lands great, and you don't know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble?" Smart question.

This election season I'm hoping for more incisive comments and fewer slurs. Caucuses and primary elections are upon us soon in the West. It would be refreshing to hear thoughtful ideas out of the mouths of politicians.

Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He lives and writes in Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.