Mayor Nutter: One cool cuss-tomer

Posted: December 28, 2012

WTF IS up with politicians these days?

Philadelphia's highest elected official went on national television Wednesday, looked into the camera and said the NRA's proposal to staff schools with armed guards was "a completely dumbass idea from the start."

It's not the first time Mayor Nutter has cursed in public. He's not alone. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg once asked mid-speech, "Who wrote this s---?" Rick Santorum yelled, "If I see it, it's bulls---," to a reporter during his presidential bid. Gov. Christie called a lawmaker an "arrogant SOB." The list goes on.

Potty-mouthed politicians caught playing blue in private conversations is nothing new. But in recent years, more and more elected officials have felt comfortable dropping A-bombs and B-bombs with full knowledge that they were on the record.

So WTF is going on?

Political consultants say that in today's society, there's little downside and a whole lot of upside in delivering a well-executed curse.

In the short term, cursing is a headline grabber. And in the long run, it can help humanize politicians - if done correctly.

Both phenomena were in play Wednesday when - after Nutter spent weeks doling out humdrum news releases, statements and appearances calling for gun control - the "dumbass" comment exploded instantly on Twitter and was picked up by Politico, the Huffington Post and other national media. Like-minded folks cheered him for giving voice to what they were all likely thinking.

Although Nutter is probably not the most foulmouthed man to lead Philadelphia - his on-the-record cursing career comprises "ass," "a--h---" and "dumbass" - he is the city's first mayor to admit his expletives are intentional.

"He's not a blurter . . . He is an individual who thinks before he speaks," said Mark McDonald, the mayor's press secretary. "The mayor is passionate about many things - kids, education, public safety, the future of Philadelphia - and from time to time, he uses the full range of the language to express himself."

Former Mayor Ed Rendell had infamously dirty diction but almost never used it on the record.

"I'm certainly not somebody who doesn't use curse words, even the big curse words. Sometimes they get the idea across more forcefully than ordinary verbiage," Rendell said. "I try not to curse in front of the camera, although I've said worse things about the NRA."

According to Rendell, "dumbass" doesn't qualify as a curse, but "a--h---," which Nutter has also said, does.

"It is, without question, a dumbass idea," Rendell said of the NRA plan. "I wouldn't say that [NRA CEO] Wayne LaPierre is an A-H."

Guns get his goat

All four of Nutter's well-known swearing episodes happened when he was speaking about gun violence. As Philly's mayor, the issue hits close to home, which may help his cursing seem authentic, said Leonard Steinhorn, a political communication expert at American University.

"If this comes off as not crude but authentic, people may in fact feel that the politicians, who are so often careful about the words they use, who so often speak from talking points, that this comes from the heart," Steinhorn said.

The danger, he said, is that politicians can appear even more contrived if they overuse cursing to score points.

"There's so much of a desire for authenticity that political consultants are graded by creating faux authenticity," Steinhorn said. "They script indignation into a particular speech."

Larry Ceisler, a local political consultant, said he could not recall Nutter cursing at ward meetings years ago, but when he does swear publicly, it's for a reason.

"When he does [curse], you know it means something. Nutter is usually pretty measured," Ceisler said. "Sometimes the mayor tries to speak on different levels to different people."

Cursing can help draw attention to important issues that can otherwise get overlooked, said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, a Philly-based good-government group.

"Occasionally, you have to piss people off, and it's a matter of percentage," Stalberg said. "If 70 percent of people pay attention to your statement because of added profanity, then it's probably worth doing."

Elevated language

While today's culture may be more accepting of profanity, that doesn't mean it wants to hear it from elected leaders, said William Lutz, an expert on public discourse and a retired University of Rutgers-Camden professor.

"You are still a representative of the city and of the people, and you do that 24 hours a day," Lutz said.

He added that Nutter should use "elevated language" because of "his office and his position in setting the tone and the context of the discussion and the debate."

Councilman James Kenney, a likely candidate to replace Nutter in 2015, said that he doesn't have a problem with the mayor's comments. He said he doesn't curse in speeches and interviews, but will use "acronymic profanity" in response to being profaned.

"I have a pretty good grasp of the English language, and I can be passionate without" cursing, Kenney said. "I think calling someone a knucklehead is just as effective as calling him an a--h---."


On Twitter: @Jan_Ransom

Blog: PhillyClout.com

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