Vulgar Word Usage From Madison Statehouse To Washington

Our politics in both Wisconsin and the nation has roughened considerably over the past decade. While political discourse starting with the Founding Fathers moving forward has always been sharp and at times personal, I have noticed that in recent times it can also be just plain vulgar. Part of the blame, obviously, gets placed on those who use language that is low-brow, but we also must place news reporting when conveying certain phrases responsible for the slide downwards in our political discourse.

The shared revenue bill in Wisconsin has generated much heat in the state capitol.  Not only about the dollar amounts to be placed into the hands of local governing officials, but the attempt by Republicans who control the majority of power in the chambers to place a laundry list of conditions on the money to be spent. Some of the most onerous whims in the bill are directed at Milwaukee, a city with challenges to be faced, but when one of their state representatives spoke to a reporter about the harshness of the proposed legislation his words got in front of the justified outrage working its way through the statehouse.

On WISC TV on May 16th during the 6:00 P.M. local news Democratic Assemblyman Ryan Clancy said the GOP was “polishing a ****” when speaking to a reporter about the shared revenue bill. I was taken aback, I guess in equal proportions, by the manner in which the freshman legislator felt he needed to express himself and to the news reporter who felt that snippet of a sound bite was worthy of being added to the story about this pressing issue in our state.

I woke one morning this week to a story in my news feed from Semafor Principles which reported that Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene wanted more goodies in the debt limit bill that would encourage her to vote for what she described as a “ **** sandwich”.  While that language is on par for defining her character in general it was the coverage she gained from such vulgarity that astounded me.  The much-revered news outlet, The Hill not only reported it but used her expletive in a headline.

Reporters must report the news and newsrooms are professionally required to inform the citizenry about the workings of their government and its officials.  In no way should we want any less than that foundation in journalism.  But it was not so long ago when the language used in the examples above would not have been allowed on the airwaves or in print. After all, in neither case was there news content in their choice of phrases.  That is a key point to make. Coverage could have stressed the issues just as clearly and both elected officials would have been quoted strenuously advocating their positions in language that met a certain standard.  And standards in broadcasting and news reporting matter.

At a time when social media is awash in crude discourse and it is all but impossible to walk in a mall or down a busy street and not hear the F word it then underscores why journalism should at least be one place where proper word usage, style, and professionalism is showcased. Within my arm’s reach of where I write is a reference shelf that contains, among other books, The New York Times Manuel of Style and Usage. It literally examines everything from “A, an, the” to Zoom.  That it does not list how to deal with scatological terms, in and of itself, notes that there are words that are just simply not permitted in news reporting.

Those who wish for unlimited word usage on the airwaves and in newsprint will label this attitude of mine (and others who share such views) likely in some fashion akin to having ‘delicate sensibilities’.  While that Jane Austen-type description is their right, I would counter that having worked in both radio broadcasting and later in a legislator’s office where in each case conduct was always viewed or heard by someone, that words used do matter.  Yes, I can see where the views expressed in this column are more prescribed than others in society.  But it really should not be so.  We all should care about the use of language by elected officials. I contend it should not be hard to conduct ourselves in society with word choices given we have the entire dictionary from which to use when making a point.  If pols can campaign and ask for votes in polite ways at election time surely they can speak to their constituents in the same fashion.  After all, elected officials are always walking a line on how to frame issues and respond to all sorts of inquiries so word usage to them is as basic as washing hands before dinner.

Simply put I believe in standards of good taste. Such a bottom line is not political or old-fashioned. It is not about censorship. It is simply about a firm belief in what should be regarded as an accepted way of behaving in a polite society.

Do Not Forget Cardinal Rule In Politics

A cardinal rule in politics and governing is that one’s opponent on an issue or policy yesterday will be an ally on a different policy or pressing matter today. While we may never really forget that fact, in the heat of politics and the heightened nature of our rhetoric, we too often set aside that working wisdom.  Over the past week, the back-and-forth of working alliances was again clearly demonstrated.

Pro-Ukraine think tankers on Monday brought Johnson to a private lunch in Dallas, Texas, to meet two dozen of the state’s leading conservative figures, including politicians, donors and captains of industry.

The message Johnson was there to deliver was simple: America must stay the course in Ukraine.

While I am an absolute and staunch supporter of the brave men and women of Ukraine and know Russia must be repelled from attacking a sovereign nation, my views of Johnson are, let us say, not very charitable. His lies that led to Brexit and his caddish personal lifestyle define the man.  But when it comes to the international goal of defeating Russia, we all can stand shoulder to shoulder with those who share our values against military aggression.  

“I just urge you all to stick with it. It will pay off massively in the long run”. 

The former U.K. prime minister flew to Texas as a growing number of conservative lawmakers, candidates and activists have started to question the size of the U.S. support package for Ukraine as it attempts to fight back against the invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2022.

But Johnson told Texan Republicans on Monday: “You are backing the right horse. Ukraine is going to win. They are going to defeat Putin.”

The lunch was not the first time Johnson has lobbied U.S. lawmakers on Ukraine’s behalf. He visited Washington in January, where he publicly urged the U.S. administration to give Ukraine fighter jets, and privately met Republican lawmakers on the same trip.

This weekend I read that Russia wants to arrest South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham following his comments related to the fighting in Ukraine. Following his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy the conservative Republican described the U.S. military assistance to the country as “the best money we’ve ever spent’.

Photo via Reuters

There are many examples of Graham coming unglued and acting less than polished in the years following the death of his very good friend, John McCain, but once again the cardinal rule of governing applies concerning his work in Ukraine. On the matter of steadfastness with a policy to remove Russia from a sovereign nation the words and understanding from the senator allow us to be part of a larger group for a most justified conclusion.

The ever-moving series of alliances and working relationships in politics are often overshadowed by the bluster and desire to play to the base where money is raised and votes in elections are secured. That is easy enough to understand. But the work of governing demands that personal regards be put aside for the betterment of the people or the advancement of a policy. The cardinal rule of politics must always prevail. I am deeply pleased to see it working on behalf of Ukraine.

President Joe Biden: Steady, Measured Campaigner In Era Of Over-Charged Politics

Opening my email Tuesday morning brought me the headline I had heard on NPR when I woke up.  President Joe Biden made it official; he is seeking a second term in the White House.  It was not a surprise moment akin to 1968 when a sitting president announced a bombshell of not running again.  It was also not a take-to-the-podium event where family and top supporters gather in some hometown high school gym or public square and as the words of another term are spoken loud applause is registered and captured on film by a bevy of news reporters gathered around.  A digital recording was offered instead to the nation.  Just like that the 2024 presidential race was engaged by a man who has proven campaigns and governing is a one-day-at-a-time way of operating. 

As I looked at the video of Biden speaking to the nation it seemed so calm and ordered and structured.  Yes, it was a professional script and tone for the candidate but there was something more to be seen.  Or rather, not seen.  There were no hair-on-fire chaotic statements or crudeness or red meat that was planted to roil the base or add incendiary partisans into overdrive. It was a normal type of campaign statement that shows deportment and gravitas about the role we want from a president–of any party–being on full display. Voters can discuss the age of the man, the conduct of foreign affairs, or the domestic policies that have been implemented or planned. But what will also be noted and perhaps even more important to voters, felt by voters, is the steady and normal way Biden’s White House operates.  The way Joe Biden lives his life and operates as president.

I believe that people understand the way a president–of any party–conducts himself and offers service to the nation is hard to measure in polls.  Polls can evaluate snapshots of concern about guns or interest rates or progress with changing over to green energy and there can be a strong sense of where the nation stands.  But knowing that there is a strong even-tempered person in the White House, even if one disagrees with this or that policy, is far harder to measure but I argue vital to the success of an election than many heated partisans care to admit.

As I read the other headlines of the day in quick fashion while enjoying my first cup of coffee, I noted Donald Trump’s rape trial starts today, charges against Trump will likely be forthcoming this summer in Georgia over election issues in 2020, and some Proud boys are nearing the end of their trial that will surely end in convictions.  As the nation takes in all the harsh headlines and political and legal turmoil they will also see a soft-spoken guy who looks like his temperament and style matches the way our politics played for most of this nation’s history.  That mood and recognition may not make people honk their horns and rush into the office today to measure their fellow worker’s reactions but it is that steady calm from Biden that will secure him another term.

Doug La Follette, In Last Official Act, Let Wisconsin Down

In what was truly a surprising headline, and one that equals with shameful, Wisconsin’s Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette abruptly resigned.  While we all can have empathy for someone who has health issues or family reasons that demand a pullback from elected duties, that does not seem to be the case with La Follette.  While he mentioned his action based on a need to “focus on my personal needs” it was the other parts of his resignation letter that alerts us to what is at play.

“After many years of frustration, I’ve decided that I don’t want to spend the next three and a half years trying to run an office without adequate resources and staffing levels”.

Going into a campaign for his 11th term of office La Follette well knew the state of play having known Republicans delighted in removing power from his office. With the legislature firmly in GOP control, he knew they would not be offering any of it back. Even a fourth grader studying Wisconsin history was aware the secretary of state had not overseen elections since 1974 and had almost no official duties. Surely La Follette was aware of what another 4 years would look like when he offered his services to the state last November in the election.

Candidates have a contract, of sorts, with voters and it is based on trust and integrity.  We hear a person tout reasons they should be elected and what they desire to do with the offices they might hold. Voters ponder the options and cast a ballot with every expectation that a sound choice has been made.  But when an office holder backs out of the responsibility they asked to hold after only three months of a 4-year term even supporters and friends have to say ( this is a family-friendly blog.) 

I am truly disgusted. This is not what good government looks like to me.  This is not what mature leadership resembles. This is not how parents teach their kids to react when the road is uphill, and the clouds gather.  This is not the narrative we want bandied about by those who hold a chip on their shoulder about government and elected officials.

I also find the news from La Follette highly troubling as I truly like the man. That can be seen from May 2012 when I wrote in the midst of the recall election for Governor Scott Walker.

Doug LaFollette walks by our home every day, but it never struck me so deeply how calm and serene he is as a person until Tuesday evening.  I guess had my name been on the ballot my steps would have been more ‘caffeinated’.  Granted LaFollette has waged many races and is accustomed to election nights, but the historic nature of what we are now experiencing would have allowed him the right to walk with wider steps and a far-a-way look.

Yet LaFollette was the same man Tuesday evening that he was last year.  He will be the same next week as he was tonight.   I like that ‘realness’ about people, but do not always find it when it comes to politicians and elected officials.

I admire how LaFollette conducted himself in the recent campaign.  Folksy and genuine.  While all of the Democratic candidates vying for the chance to compete with Scott Walker were complete packages with skills, experiences, and political competency, there is something unique and more solid about LaFollette that stood out.

I just feel sad about the news from today.

President Biden Strongest When Nonideological, Leaning Into Effective Governing

As we know during the 2020 primaries, Joe Biden stressed deficit reduction and proved most comfortable with staking out moderate positions on issues such as crime and immigration. Throughout his career, he always had a far more pragmatic sense of politics and policymaking than his political opponents ever wanted to acknowledge.  While it is true progressives never felt overly warm towards his policy goals and perspectives on the issues it must be stated the broad swath of the nation could agree with his approach to crime in the 1990s, as an example, and then his understanding in recent years that American troops needed to leave Afghanistan.  It can be argued from a political view that Biden has aligned himself over the decades with the mood swings and the mindset of the citizenry.  That may seem to some not being moored to any position or too easily swayed.  Or it can mean Biden fully grasps what leadership requires in a democracy and how best to address the needs of the times in which we live.

On Friday that political agility was proved once again. Known as the Willow project, Biden officials are reportedly set to approve a major oil drilling project by ConocoPhillips in Alaska. It could eventually yield 180,000 barrels of crude daily, which would mean about 1.6% of current domestic production. No small undertaking given the international chaos resulting from Russin aggression against a sovereign country. One can absolutely have a robust dialogue over climate change, environmental needs, and green energy, along with a bevy of connected issues regarding this policy proposal. But what is again clear and being fully demonstrated with this policy is the pragmatic governing side of Biden is very much front and center. Presidential historians 50 years from now will not only be analyzing the policy results from what we have come to know about Biden’s actions but also his style of leadership and insistence that government actually work, and function.  That last point is mighty important. Governing matters far more than the political bombast.

This week we read in the newspapers about Biden’s proposed budget which was focused on reducing deficits in the neighborhood of $3 trillion over 10 years. Recently he was most reasoned and wide-eyed with his resolve to not veto a resolution killing the D.C. Council’s overhaul of the city’s criminal code. The issue centers on reduced maximum penalties for some violent crimes. When it comes to immigration Biden proved to be forthright about his views that curbing access to asylum for some migrants and reconsidering implementing a policy of detaining families who cross the border illegally would be policy moves strongly considered. In all the lather of politics that this nation often enjoys, far more than the nuance and deeper understanding of issues beyond the headlines or the sappy memes on social media, it is then easy to miss a most salient point.  The central fact to Biden’s over 4 decades of political involvement demonstrates he has always had a very real strip running through him that is nonideological and leans towards effective governing. Those of us–such as myself–who became a ‘Biden man’ in 1987 and remain that way due to his moderate approach and interest in making government work are pleased.

It takes 50 years to start to make proper assessments regarding history, but scholars and writers will doubtless view affirmatively what we read about Biden this week from the newspapers, the first record of history. The anger of politics is all too easy to find, in fact, most times it is nigh impossible to avoid. What we often do not see, however, are the ones earnestly striving to make government work. We must applaud that desire. In this era of too many openly dysfunctional personalities who have warped and twisted our political culture into shame and embarrassment, Biden stands out. Just as he has demonstrated his entire political life.

Former Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl Dies, Gentler Politics, Too

Tony Earl during a 1986 campaign trip in Door County, aboard Utopia with Gregory Humphrey

One of those politicians all would agree was a most pleasant and kind man died on Thursday.  Tony Earl, the former Wisconsin Governor was 86 years old, and though politics always creates a bevy of differences over policies it can be said he had genuine friends on all sides of the political spectrum.  I saw that play out in person as Earl sought reelection in 1986, a time when our state politics could be frothy but not yet downright mean.

That summer I drove my aqua-marine colored Chevet into the driveway of Fred Peterson, owner of the famed Peterson Shipbuilding family in Sturgeon Bay. I note the car type as I knew it did not blend harmoniously with the impressive home and lawns of a very successful businessman and shipyard owner. I knew he was a staunch conservative Republican and what I, the chairperson of the Door County Democrats, was about to suggest was plucky, for sure.  Earl had wanted to make a campaign swing through the county and his staff wondered if I might arrange for an event.  I pondered it for a couple days and then thought way outside of the box about an idea that was sure to generate press.   

Having lived in Door County for a couple of years I knew Peterson had constructed, in 1946, the famed staysail schooner, Utopia.  Soon thereafter he took three years to circumnavigate the globe. The stories of that trip were often talked about by locals.  Peterson greeted me warmly at his door and if was soon thereafter I suggested that he take Governor Tony Earl on a ride aboard his beloved schooner with some others from around the county.

Photo from Inland Seas Education Association

His first responses are ones that did surprise me and these decades later they are fondly recalled as they speak to a gentler time of state politics.  Peterson wondered what dates were being suggested, how many might be aboard, and whether there should be some snacks and soda served.  I do not recall he ever said yes, but rather just started planning how to make it happen upon the governor’s arrival.  That classy older man speaks to the way our politics once really did play out.

The scheduled day on the water was warm, and sunny, with just a few clouds above while perfect harmony was onboard. Fred was proud of his schooner and honored to have the governor out for a trip; my fellow Democrats were pleased to be there, a few local businesspeople I asked to join were able to talk with Earl about ideas, and his campaign staff was truly pleased with the event which garnered press attention.  It strikes me as I write about the death of Earl and that excursion on the Utopia how people from different ends of the political divide could unite. People who might be grousing about property taxes, environmental policy, or the need for more transportation funds were able to find common bonds while relaxing and viewing the beauty of Door County.

In 2006, I chatted again with Tony Earl following a concert at Overture Hall in Madison. We talked about the years that had gone by and reflected on the time when the tone and style of politics were gentler and seemingly less rhetorically driven. The former governor knew a boatload about state politics, the upsides of winning, as well as the sting of defeat. Through it all, as I reminded him, he was always a gentleman and gracious. His eyes still flashed, and his words still had precision and honesty; laced often with humorous phrasing which allowed him to be a great storyteller. When I asked Earl if he missed the excitement of the campaign trail he flatly stated he did not since politics had become just plain mean and nasty. He told stories of how he would have heated disagreements with his opponents, but at the end of the day the common bonds of friendship took control, and the arguments were retired. He added the personal assaults aimed at each other make politics harsher, and less fun.

The thing that struck me about Earl in 1986 was his genuineness, which was not a trait I noticed in every politician I would come to know. He was solid enough with his own set of principles that he would not campaign on Sundays when running for re-election, even though many tried to convince him otherwise. That type of person with strong inner convictions has always moved me in his or her direction. With the passing of Tony Earl, we know we have lost more than a man many respected and admired.  We also have lost another slice of decency and honor which was a staple of our state politics.

John Fetterman Showing Nation What Quiet Leadership Looks Like

Earlier today I heard the news about Pennsylvania freshman Senator John Fetterman’s medical situation.  Last week he was feeling weak and sought out treatment which resulted in hospitalization, but today we learned he has now checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to deal with clinical depression.   First and foremost, I wish him well, and second, I strongly support and applaud his candor and willingness to share his journey with his constituents and the nation at large.

As I heard the news my mind thought at once about First Lady Rosalynn Carter who worked from a White House platform to talk candidly about the need for better mental health programming throughout the country.  It is no small thing what she did as it was an essential reason Congress passed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.  Throughout her decades of leadership, she has strived to work against the stigma that is all too often associated with anyone who seeks out medical help with depression. Today, when Fetterman was able to put forth a public statement about his needs and the medical assistance he is seeking it is clear what strides we have made in this nation regarding mental health issues.

Though I have never felt depression nor can truly understand the pull it has on a person I can speak to months of grief counseling and strong support following the death of my Mom so as to come out on the other side of sadness, a kind I had never before had to deal. The one thing I know to be true with any such issue is to confront it head-on, and honestly.  Fetterman has taken, with my limited ability to make such a statement, a powerfully positive step by seeking help and not being ashamed to be upfront about it.  That is a strength that makes him the type of man any father in the nation should like to see his own son possess as an adult.

Fetterman is demonstrating a form of leadership that will allow for more open dialogue about depression and other mental health issues. He can do for this issue as what First Lady Betty Ford did for the candor needed to address breast cancer. His open acceptance of these services can aid in furthering our discourse as to why mental health programming needs additional governmental funding.  He has now become one with tens of millions of Americans suffering from mental health issues and if he so chooses can show leadership of a kind that makes politics ring hollow.

Racism Displayed In Speaker McCarthy’s GOP House, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar Ousted From Foreign Affairs

It was simply not the type of action a diverse electorate wishes to see play out in our nation. Once again, and in a stunning and stark demonstration of how far removed House conservatives are from becoming a governing majority in the nation, they removed in a bitter and acrimonious way, Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Somali-born, from the Foreign Affairs Committee over her past comments about Israel.

The GOP tit-for-tat was only about a mile short of making sense as they sought retribution for the removal of Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona from committee assignments after they each endorsed violence against Democrats. Meanwhile, Omar took a strident stand for Palestinian rights in Israel. In the minds of GOP House brainiacs, it then seemed logical to remove a dark-skinned Muslim woman from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

It is stupefying, from a purely political perspective as elections in a presidential year approach to placate the vilest right-wingers who have proved their desire for nothing more than to be fed red meat. They got their treasured discourse and loud bombastic nonsense with bizarre nominees coast-to-coast in the mid-terms.  The red wave in 2022 was a pink—ish (Santos) trickle. So with the super-thin majority in the House, rather than create headlines that place policy in the driving seat for moderate and suburban voters to notice, they opt for out-right racism and open bigotry. Speaker McCarthy may feel a need for his own survival to play with the most irksome white males and social rejects of his caucus, but the nation has every right to call out his determination to ingratiate himself with the under-educated rubes in the hard-right Republican base.

We know that political base could not locate Somalia on a map any more than they could provide a library card and list their last ten loaned books. But they do know how to be vicious racists with their partisan rage, and well, that is all that counts for these types of conservatives. But, the mature ones within Republican Party should desire to be seen as at least somewhat interested in governing, rather than just prattle about with investigations and gotcha partisanship. Revenge may sound fun in 2023 for the GOP, but rejection of those tactics is the outcome in 2024 for wasting time when they had the gavel.