World / Politics

Crude exchange between Rubio, Trump has many precedents in American political history

by Beth J. Harpaz


You could say politics has reached a new low with the “small hands” remarks from the Republican debate.

A week ago, Sen. Marco Rubio, talking about Trump, said, “And you know what they say about men with small hands.” The remark was viewed as an insult about Trump’s sexual prowess.

In Thursday’s GOP debate, Trump noted the insult, held his hands up to the audience and declared, “I guarantee you, there’s no problem.”

But the exchange over the size of body parts is merely the most recent vulgarity in American politics. The history of crude remarks goes back to the Founding Fathers.

In the 18th century, John Adams called Alexander Hamilton a “bastard brat” and wrote that Hamilton had “a superabundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off,” according to historian Ron Chernow.

One difference between then and now: “These were words written or spoken in private, not in public,” said Chernow, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Alexander Hamilton helped inspire the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Chernow says the comments were quoted in letters that survived the centuries.

In the 1880s, rumors of Grover Cleveland’s out-of-wedlock child led to a song from his Republican opponents: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” When Cleveland won the presidency, the response came: “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”

“Old-fashioned American politics was full of those kinds of vile comments,” said Arnold Shober, who teaches government at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. “We’ve kind of lost that over the last 70 years, and I think it’s just coming back.”

Not that 20th-century politicians shied away from vulgarities. Here is President Bill Clinton describing his 1970s El Camino pickup truck: “I had Astroturf in the back. You don’t want to know why, but I did.”

And Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proved that she could talk dirty when she said: “This is not cojones. This is cowardice,” after Cuba shot down Cuban-American exiles flying civilian planes.

Sex therapist Judy Kuriansky said sex talk among men “is their way of comparing themselves and evaluating their influence and their power over each other. Certainly that was the allusion” at the debate.

“Everything is related to potency and power in direct relationship to size,” she added. “I’m taller than you and my penis is bigger than you, and therefore I’m more powerful than you.”

What do voters think? Those who like Trump seem to give it a pass. Those who don’t are disgusted.

“There’s too much political correctness,” said Trump supporter Carol Ebright at a Trump rally in Cadillac, Michigan, on Friday. “I want to see the ‘Get things done!’ not the ‘Did you hear what he said?'” She carried a sign that said, “The silent majority stands with Trump.”

But Amy Woody, a self-described moderate-to-liberal voter from eastern Tennessee, said Trump’s crude language is “completely inappropriate.”

“I have extremely thick skin,” said Woody, who spent 16 years in the U.S. Air Force in squadrons that were typically less than 20 percent female. “I served in the military for a long time. We probably joked much more inappropriately than your standard workplace. It’s not done with any malice or disrespect. Male, female, it doesn’t matter. You all just wear a uniform. We all dish out the same comments to each other.”

But in a presidential campaign, she said, “it’s tacky and trashy, and I think all politicians — especially someone running for president — should have at least a trace of class and dignity.”

Just because Trump can get away with it doesn’t mean the rest of us can. Using crude language or mocking others in the workplace can get you reprimanded, fired or sued.

“That type of comment in the workplace could be viewed as offensive and creating a hostile work environment,” said Richard Corenthal, a labor and employment lawyer with Meyer Suozzi English & Klein in New York. “An employer may be liable if put on notice about these types of comments and if they allow them to continue.”

Whether legal or not, whether appropriate or not, one thing is clear: Trump’s comments don’t represent some grand fall in decorum. Political mudslinging has gone on for centuries, and Americans’ tolerance for vulgarities has built up over time.

Trump has also made frequent denigrating remarks about Hispanic immigrants and Muslims. But following his dominant Super Tuesday primary performance, he is embracing what he calls flexibility on issues like torture and illegal immigration, abandoning at least for now the tough rhetoric that has fueled his rise to front-runner status.

After dozens of conservative national security experts wrote an open letter pledging to oppose Trump’s candidacy in part because of his “embrace of the expansive use of torture,” Trump issued a statement Friday saying that he understands that the U.S. is “bound by laws and treaties” and that he will not order U.S. military officials to violate or disobey those laws if elected president. It appeared to be a retreat from declarations that he would bring back the use of waterboarding and would target the wives and children of suspected extremists.

“Politics has emerged as essentially a reality TV show, and that’s why Trump is able to use it so deftly. He understands the format. He built his campaign around it,” said Andrew Ricci, vice president of Levick, a Washington public relations firm.

At the New York State Republican convention in Buffalo, Friday, Pamela Helming, town supervisor of Canandaigua, New York, worried that the GOP candidates’ bickering “is just going to turn people off and we’re not going to see the voters turn out.”

She added: “Some of the crude comments, you expect some bickering, some negativity, but I do believe they’ve crossed a line.”