Almost exactly 16 years ago in Ireland the then Leader of Fianna Fáil, Charles Haughey (who had been before and would later again become Taoiseach, and who was never less than controversial), gave an interview to the magazine Hot Press. The interview was unremarkable in terms of content, but explosive in terms of the colourful language used. So Ireland was able to learn that one of its political leaders used all sorts of swear words in conversation, and that he had a particular fondness for the ‘F’ word. Shock was expressed in newspaper comment pages. But nobody needed to be surprised. After all, most people in Ireland were (and are) fond of swearing their way through the day, by no means excluding politicians. One other Minister (of a different party) was notorious for his habit of arranging meetings by telling his secretary to ‘get that f***er in here’. And today several Irish politicians are known for their fondness of expletives.
It’s not uniquely an Irish habit. The White House tapes released at the time of the Watergate investigations revealed Richard Nixon as a serial swearer. Recently there have been newspaper reports telling us that current British Prime Minister David Cameron ‘uses four-letter expletives as casually as a teenager in a school playground.’ What is more, in doing so he follows, it is said, in the footsteps of the last two occupants of No 10 Downing Street. And back in America, Barack Obama last year said of his (now departed) White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that Mother’s Day was problematic for him because he was not used to saying ‘day’ after the word ‘mother’.
Why would any of that shock us? Maybe there is a view in some circles that politicians need to show some sort of decorum that suggests to voters that they would be more at ease at your granny’s birthday tea than just before closing time in the pub. But don’t we want our politicians to be part of life as it is lived, rather than as it is airbrushed?
I confess I get very tired of the over-use of swear words, particularly in Dublin, where many people seem to feel a need to introduce the ‘F’ word into every sub-clause of every sentence. But on the other hand, expletives can have a use, and apparently are effective in reducing tension and blood pressure. So if anyone wants to be critical of David Cameron, I hope they find a better basis for that. And as for Charles Haughey’s interview, even today it makes me smile, not because I admire the language, but because he felt confident enough to ‘be himself’. That’s not a bad thing.