President Joe Biden likes to cuss. We have learned recently that he calls former president and likely election rival Donald Trump “a sick f***” and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “bad f***ing guy” and an “a**hole.” 

When questioned about his memory, he said to House Democrats, “How the f*** could I forget the day my son died?” The swearing itself is not news—recall Biden’s famous overheard whisper to Barack Obama that Obamacare was “a big f***ing deal.” What is news is that Biden’s cursing seems to be increasing in venom and frequency. More and more, it looks like a crutch to show that he has the energy to remain president. 

Presidential cursing goes back a long way, though until recently, most of the instances of profanity have been in private or controlled settings—not, say, in televised appearances or at campaign rallies. Harry Truman, for example, was known to use salty language. He once explained his firing of the insubordinate but popular General Douglas MacArthur by saying, “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.” 

As Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes attest, the Texan swore—so much so that it would be impossible to document all of it here. For Johnson, cursing was part of his basic vocabulary, and not just for insults. One typical and revealing comment was his 1965 lament, “I don’t know what the f*** to do about Vietnam.” 

Johnson’s best-known R-rated line came as a senator. He greeted Vice President Richard Nixon at the airport after Nixon returned from a 1958 trip to Venezuela. On the trip, Nixon’s motorcade was attacked, generating sympathy in the United States for the returning vice president. A reporter said to Johnson: “Senator, I saw you out there at the airport the other day, embracing Vice President Nixon. I thought you told me a few weeks ago that this guy was nothing but chickens***.” 

Johnson replied, “Son, what you’ve got to understand is that in politics, overnight, chickens*** can turn into chicken salad.” 

Nixon was a big cusser, too. One of his favorite phrases was “sons of bitches,” which he deployed against his perceived enemies. One typical rant, which might resonate with many Americans unhappy with our so-called elite schools today, was, “The Ivy League presidents? Oh, I won’t let those sons of bitches ever in this White House again. Never. Never. None of them. They’re finished. The Ivy League schools are finished.”  

Nixon’s penchant for cursing would come back to haunt him. When Americans heard the extent of his profanity on the Watergate tapes, they were shocked. The swearing did more damage to his image at a time when he could least afford it.

Sometimes the competitive juices can spark profanity in presidents not particularly known for it. In 1979, faced with the prospect of a primary threat, Jimmy Carter warned that if Senator Ted Kennedy ran against him in the Democratic primaries, “I’ll whip his a**.” Kennedy did run, and Carter did indeed beat him out for the nomination. 

 In 1980, Carter’s eventual general election opponent Ronald Reagan used profanity when frustrated with internal turmoil in his campaign. Reagan’s campaign head John Sears was in the process of purging members of Reagan’s gubernatorial team, known as “the Californians.” Reagan went along with it for a while, but he was angered by the departure of longtime aide, and Nancy Reagan confidante, Michael Deaver. After Deaver departed, an unhappy Reagan said, “Well, you sons of b****es, the best guy we had just left.” Unsurprisingly, Sears did not last long after that.  

Reagan’s vice president, the usually gracious George H. W. Bush, did something similar to Carter following his 1984 debate performance against vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. The former Navy pilot, unaware that reporters were within earshot, said, “we tried to kick a little a** last night.”  

Bush was unhappy to have been overheard, and said, “Whoops, oh God, he heard me.” Still, he did not deny the comment when it came out, saying, “I stand behind it, I use it all the time. My kids use it, everybody who competes in sports uses it.”

Bush was right that his kids swore. When his son George W. was running for president, a microphone picked up Bush telling running mate Dick Cheney that New York Times reporter Adam Clymer was a “major league a**hole.” Cheney readily agreed, saying “Big time,” earning that phrase as his White House nickname. 

Bush was moved to profanity once again by Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration speech, saying, “that was some weird s***.” Trump himself is a frequent cusser, infamously disparaging immigrants who come from “s***-hole countries” and often using expletives in rally speeches. But the Bush and Biden stories show that Trump has also induced multiple presidents to curse.  

Trump has some competition from Benjamin Netanyahu in driving other presidents to profanity. Presidential cursing over Netanyahu goes back decades. In 1996, Bill Clinton once fumed, “Who’s the f***ing leader of the free world?” after being lectured by Netanyahu. In 2020, Trump said “f*** him,” after Netanyahu recognized Biden’s election victory. A senior Obama official once called Netanyahu “chickensh**” over his refusal to make more concessions to the Palestinians. The identity of that official has never been revealed, and some say that it may have been Obama himself.  

In times past, presidents might have been ashamed of their cursing, or, as in the case of George H. W. Bush, tried to explain it away. Others, like Truman or Johnson, used profanity to make clever or humorous points. For his part, Biden seems to revel in it.

Yet Biden would be wise to recall the wisdom of religious leader Spencer W. Kimball: “Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly.” Given evidence that cursing increases in some people as they age, Biden should consider getting his tongue under control. Profanity is a bad look for him, especially as he tries to push back on the growing narrative that he’s too old to stay on as president.

Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images


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