Mugger: THE ROMNEY CURSE
Once the Republican convention has adjourned in early September, after the obligatory if rarely sincere clasping of hands of all the primary candidates, Mitt Romney will fast become a political footnote. It’s unlikely he’ll campaign vigorously for John McCain in the fall, given the animosity between the two men, and if the Arizona senator defies the odds in this Democratic year and wins the presidency there will be no room for Romney in his administration. Yes, it’s possible that the 60-year-old former governor could deplete more of his family fortune in another race four years hence against a President Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, but that’s probably not in the cards.
I never much cared for Romney to begin with—although one can always be thankful he gave Teddy Kennedy a brief scare in his 1994 Massachusetts senate bid—mostly because he shamelessly pandered to social conservatives, reversing many of the moderate positions he previously articulated in public life. When he ran against Kennedy, Romney was a centrist, pro-choice Republican: During the last couple of years in preparation for his presidential campaign, he explained his new anti-abortion stance by saying that his views had “evolved.” Please. One can accept and understand a younger person “evolving” on such a gut-level issue, but absent a religious conversion, for which Romney had no need, it’s inconceivable that a middle-aged, intelligent man would reach an opposite conclusion on something so basic as abortion.
Nevertheless, there’s one aspect of Romney’s personal makeup—and on this he’s apparently never swerved—that I found refreshing: the man never swears. This certainly isn’t a moral judgment, since my own vocabulary and speech is fully stocked with the usual words that aren’t allowed in a “family” newspaper (but are in the post-William Shawn New Yorker). It’s simply a curiosity, probably because politicians are often among the most foul-mouthed public figures, whether it’s George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, John McCain, John Kerry, Dick Cheney, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman—in relatively modern times—who are caught off-guard by revelations of expletive-enhanced opinions.
It’s unusual today to find many Americans whose speech is uncompromised by the lazy use of words such as fuck, shit, asshole or bitch when the same meaning could be conveyed without them. I grew up in a (not especially religious) household where swearing was unheard of, at least in family banter. The only time I ever heard my mother breach that linguistic threshold was during the last year of her life when, tuckered out and in pain from chemotherapy, she admitted that she “felt like shit.”
As for my father, perhaps it was his puritanical New England upbringing, but he never crossed the line, employing Romney-like euphemisms such as “nuts,” “gosh,” “darn it” and “holy mackerel” to express the same thought. One time, as a second-grader, I said, “God, I hope it snows tomorrow so there’s no school,” and I was met with a stern rebuke from my parents, who scolded me for taking the Lord’s name in vain. That was a bit confusing, since they didn’t go to church—my father worked on Sundays and my mother didn’t want to miss Meet the Press—but I toed the line.
In fact, I clearly remember the first time a “curse” passed my lips. I was a sophomore in high school, and while walking home from a Huntington High School dance, I tentatively used the word motherfucker in a conversation with my buddy Howie, who thought nothing of it. In retrospect, this was a little weird, since I’d been smoking pot and cigarettes for more than a year, had tried mescaline and LSD, yet hadn’t made the less-risky leap to swearing.
My four brothers split into two camps on the obscenity issue, with the two oldest, born in ’42 and ’44, adhering to the stance of my parents. The other two (’47 and ’50) always made liberal use of the words that Howard Stern is free to say on Sirius. I don’t swear in front of my oldest brother since he simply doesn’t care for that sort of language, which isn’t all that surprising for an avid reader who nonetheless eschews all novels written after 1900. The second oldest is another case: While he won’t indulge in salty speech, he’ll let out a loud guffaw if one of us makes a particularly appropriate characterization of an event or person.
And, to prove that this isn’t simply a generational divide, my 13-year-old son frowns upon all “nasty” words, and upbraids his older brother who, for better or worse, has taken after his old man. (Which doesn’t bother me, as long as he doesn’t swear in front of his mother or other women, a debatably chauvinistic—to revive a word from the ’70s—admonition on my part.) In fact, Booker’s so fastidious about this matter that when he’s particularly irritated he’ll give someone the finger—the index finger.
But back to the presidential race. Obscenity, of course, is matter of interpretation. And The New York Times, on a daily basis, prints drivel that’s far more offensive, at least to me, than the lyrics that Nas bleats out on his recordings. A Times editorial last week, the day after the slew of primaries and caucuses, decried the “partisan division” among both the Republicans and Democrats, a state of politics the writer insists Americans are “fed up with.” The editorial upbraided Michelle Obama for having the temerity to suggest on Good Morning America that should her husband lose the nomination, “I’d have to think about” supporting Hillary Clinton. The editorial goes on to say that after The Times endorsed Clinton, the paper received a number of emails saying they’d sit out the election if Obama weren’t the nominee. “That is not the way democracy is supposed to work,” the writer declared, and then reminded readers that wack-job Ann Coulter made a similar pronouncement, saying that she’d vote for Clinton over McCain.
Please explain: Why is choosing, out of disappointment or anger, not to vote in an election—at least the presidential contest—undemocratic?
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