The current edition of Rolling Stone magazine features presidential historian Douglas Brinkley's interview with President Barack Obama. Arriving just days before the 2012 election, it's a partisan but thoughtful look at the ideological tug-of-war for the White House, but it's been overshadowed by one moment of presidential profanity.
In an informal exchange with Brinkley and his editor, Obama says he does very well with kids, explaining, "They look at the other guy and say, 'Well, that's a bull-----er, I can tell.'"
The epithet, directed at Obama's rival in this year's election, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was certainly not the first cuss word uttered by a president. The release of President Richard M. Nixon's White House tapes introduced the term "expletive deleted" to popular discourse, and all 21st-century presidents and vice presidents have had infamous off-color moments.
But Obama's on-the-record choice of words was an appropriate exclamation point in this year where presidential politics lost its — ahem — innocence, so to speak, aided by the Internet where anything goes and a society much more tolerant of anything going.
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Released at almost the same time was Girls creator and star Lena Dunham's campaign ad for Obama equating voting for the first time to having sex for the first time.
"Your first time shouldn't be with just anybody," Dunham says opening the commercial that was paid for by Obama for America. "You want to do it with a great guy."
Dunham then quickly shifts into touting some of the president's achievements and ideology concluding, "My first time voting was amazing. It was this line in the sand. Before, I was a girl; now I was a woman. I went to the polling station, I pulled back the curtain, I voted for Barack Obama."
That came on the heels of a viral video hit from actor Samuel L. Jackson based on Adam Mansbach's popular children's-style book for parents Go the ---- to Sleep, called Wake the ---- Up. In the nearly four-minute-long video, not paid for by the Obama campaign, Jackson wields the F-word as only he can trying to rouse apathetic voters.
Romney supporters have, of course, cried foul, in many cases stopping just short of invoking their own profanities.
The Jackson ad came from the Jewish Council for Education Research, which has been active in the last couple presidential campaigns and is also responsible for a Sarah Silverman spot earlier in this campaign that makes the Dunham ad look like a children's book.
For the most part, these ads are Internet sensations, unlikely to interrupt the mudslinging that dominates local newscasts these days. And for the most part, they have come from Democrats. The most eyebrow raising Republican ads were a spot for longshot and openly gay Republican primary candidate Fred Karger, which featured sexy young people frolicing on the beach and two men kissing at the end, and the Herman Cain ad with campaign manager Mark Block smoking, largely regarded as more weird than controversial.
Even people from what humorist P.J. O'Rourke once dubbed "the coed naked bond trading" wing of the Republican Party recognize that getting too risqué would turn off a lot of their religious conservative base. That's not to say the right has not offered up its own potpourri of things to upset their opposition.
But liberals have generally been more liberal about issues such as sex and language.
The big difference is that in previous election cycles, campaigns usually bowed to calls to denounce and disavow perceived breaches of taste. But this time, the campaigns have let it ride, seeming to trust that most people who would be offended weren't voting for Obama anyway.
But the larger story is that we are in a quickly evolving time reflected by a culture the celebrates Judd Apatow movies, premium cable series and basic cable service that don't always bleep out the cuss words anymore. Don't decry a political campaign and its supporters from leading a loosening of standards. It's simply reflecting a new normal.