July 19, 2006

Taking shit from the President

Repercussions from the sh-t heard round the world continue to be felt. Unlike most other media sources, the New York Times and the Washington Post decided not to censor President Bush's pithy solution for peace in the Middle East: "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over." The bloggers at Gawker treated the printing of shit in the Times as a momentous event, wondering,"does this indeed mark the debut appearance of a barnyard epithet for manure in The Gray Lady?" This was enough for Slate's "Today's Blogs" feature to claim, inaccurately, "Gawker heralds the four-letter word's first ever appearance in the New York Times."

No, it's not the first time. As I mentioned in an update to my original post, the late New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal exempted presidential swearing from the newspaper's ban on shit during the Watergate era. Rosenthal's obituary in the New York Observer (quoted by a Gawker commenter) tells the story:

When a Watergate tape revealed that Richard Nixon had said, "I don't give a shit what happens, I want you all to stonewall it," The Times printed shit for the first time, though only in the text of the tape, and not in the accompanying news story.
When a Newsweek reporter called Rosenthal to ask if this was a seismic change in the paper's standards, he replied, "No. We'll only take shit from the President."

For the record, I've reproduced the fateful first shit in the New York Times, as it appears on page 20 of the July 10, 1974 paper. The context is the House Judiciary Committee's transcripts of Nixon's White House tapes, which differed in some crucial ways from the sanitized transcripts released by the White House itself. The conversation Nixon had with his aides on March 22, 1973 (full transcript here), in which Nixon asserted his "stonewalling" strategy, had been conveniently omitted until the White House was forced to give up the tapes. Nixon's "not giving a shit" was therefore damning evidence of a cover-up, and the revelation helped seal the President's fate as the Judiciary Committee drew up impeachment charges.

Indeed, when the Times carried a piece on "The Evidence for Impeachment" in the July 14 "Week in Review" section, this passage of the transcript was featured prominently. However, shit had disappeared, replaced by four dashes:

The four-dash treatment also appeared the following day in an opinion column by Anthony Lewis. Elsewhere in its Watergate coverage, the Times dropped "I don't give a shit..." entirely, instead beginning Nixon's quote with "I want you all to stonewall it." But on July 23, the Times spelled out shit one more time, in the summary of the impeachment inquiry from Judiciary Committee special counsel John Doar. So in both cases where shit appeared unexpurgated, the Times was reprinting official Congressional documents rather than featuring the word in writing by the paper's own reporters.

That wasn't the last time that shit appeared in the Times in a Nixonian context. On June 6, 1976, the Book Review dropped an S-bomb from a rather unusual source: William F. Buckley, Jr. It appears in Buckley's review of The Company, John Ehrlichman's lightly fictionalized account of the Watergate affair. In one scene with characters standing in for Lyndon B. Johnson and CIA Director Richard Helms, the LBJ character says of his successor (the Nixon stand-in), "If you think this is politics, just wait until that son of a bitch gets in here. You'll be eating his political shit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner." After quoting the passage, Buckley writes, "That has the advantage of sounding like LBJ, but is highly distracting to the ethical crochet." So Rosenthal's rule about "taking shit from the President" apparently extended to fictional Commanders in Chief too.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at July 19, 2006 01:01 AM