Joe Biden has proved that even after a year of debate over health care reform, not everything had been said. At a White House signing ceremony for the legislation, the vice president turned to the president and said, as he embraced Obama, "This is a big f---ing deal." The remark was intended to be private but was picked up by the microphone at the podium.
Let us now resolve that among the unenumerated duties of the vice president is to occasionally uncork an expletive in public. This is not Biden's first time. At a ceremony announcing funding for his beloved Amtrak, he was greeted by a former colleague as "Mr. Vice President." He replied, "Give me a f---ing break."
Biden's remark may have been inappropriate for polite company, but it was apt. It summed up precisely the nature, scope and impact of the legislation better than any of the 627 words he had just spoken. He lavished such praise on the president, Obama was forced to stare at the floor just as my fabulous and accomplished children do when I tell everyone how fabulous and accomplished they are.
It is easy to lament Biden's remark as yet another sign of our coarser modern age. But America has a long and honorable tradition of top elected officials using salty language. Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Bush and Clinton all used rough language. Jimmy Carter did, too. (Though his best moment may have come when he didn't mean to: Speaking in Poland, he said "I want to know the Polish people," which was translated into Polish as, "I want to have carnal knowledge of the Polish people.") It is true that our first president was against it: Gen. George Washington issued "General Orders on Profanity" to his troops in 1776.
We are more aware of vulgarity because there are more microphones (as opposed to private White House taping systems), and when something is picked up it rockets around the Web. Even reaction is digital now. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged Biden on Twitter: "And yes Mr. Vice President, you're right."
People of a sensitive nature might disapprove, but there are instances in private conversation when the expletive is the best way to convey meaning.
Ben Bradlee, in his book Conversations With Kennedy, captured it precisely: "This record is sprinkled with what some will consider vulgarity. They may be shocked. Others, like Kennedy and like myself, whose vocabularies were formed in the crucible of life in the World War II Navy in the Pacific Ocean, will understand instinctively. There is nothing inherently vulgar in the legendary soldier's description of a broken-down Jeep. 'The f---ing f---er's f---ed.' Surely there is no more succinct, or even graceful, four-word description of that particular state of affairs."
This is the category that Vice President Biden's locution occupies. There is a distinction, however, between the use of vulgar terms and vulgarity. The latter goes too far — in grossing everyone out, or in simply being too mean. Its greatest practitioners were LBJ and Nixon. LBJ was vulgar on the question of Macy's window displays, Gerald Ford and gum chewing, tent etiquette and keepsakes obtained from subservient lawmakers. His salty language came directly at someone else's expense. (President Obama might come under this category because he called Kanye West a "jackass," but he can make the argument that he was simply stating a verifiable fact.)
Nixon is perhaps the prizewinner in both categories. As a presidential candidate in 1960, he made an issue of Harry Truman's use of bad words like "son of a b----" and "hell." "I'm very proud that President Eisenhower restored dignity and decency and, frankly, good language to the conduct of the presidency of the United States," he said. (This may have been because Truman used bad words to talk about Nixon, whom he disliked intensely.)
Behind closed doors, however, he seemed to uncork a new one with every turn of his tape recorder. It makes sense when you think about it. He did start out as a vice president.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail.