Read time: 3 minutes

Let's Define 'Vulgar'

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, Bush’s former chief speechwriter, has spent most of the year devoting his columns to bashing Barack Obama

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, Bush’s former chief speechwriter, has spent most of the year devoting his columns to bashing Barack Obama. Today, he mixes things up a bit by bashing a different Democrat he doesn’t like: Senate candidate Al Franken.

Consider his article in Playboy magazine titled “Porn-O-Rama!” in which he enthuses that it is an “exciting time for pornographers and for us, the consumers of pornography.” The Internet, he explains, is a “terrific learning tool. For example, a couple of years ago, when he was 12, my son used the Internet for a sixth-grade report on bestiality. Joe was able to download some effective visual aids, which the other students in his class just loved.” Franken goes on to relate a soft-core fantasy about women providing him with sex who were trained at the “Minnesota Institute of Titology.”

Orwell would be so proud.

“Porn-O-Rama!” is a modern campaign document every voter should read — the Federalist Papers of lifestyle liberalism. It has the literary sensibilities and moral seriousness of an awkward adolescent nerd publishing an underground newspaper to shock his way into campus popularity. But, in this case, the article was written in 2000 by a 48-year-old man.

Gerson goes on (and on), highlighting various excerpts from Franken’s satirical works, some of which are funny, and some of which aren’t. Gerson’s broader point, it seems, is that Franken has contributed to a coarsening of our culture — in the “cause of relevance and realism” — and it would be another setback to allow this coarsening to affect our “political discourse.”

Gerson insists politics “should not actively push our culture toward vulgarity and viciousness,” which, Gerson argues, “Sen. Franken” would do.

I’m all for a civil discourse, but I find Gerson’s complaining wildly off-base.

First, Gerson makes no effort to appreciate the distinction between candidate Franken and satirist Franken. To hear Gerson tell it, Franken will be telling risque, profanity-laden jokes on the Senate floor. This is foolish — Franken may have a background as a comedian, but he’s serious about politics. Our “political discourse” will remain unchanged, whether Franken’s quick wit is brought to Washington or not.

Second, Gerson’s right about having Franken used, shall we say, “salty” language in his comedic work, but I’m not sure why Gerson believes contemporary politics is free of this kind of talk now. When Gerson’s former boss decided to launch an unnecessary war, he proclaimed, “F**k Saddam, we’re taking him out.” When Dick Cheney ran into Pat Leahy on the Senate floor a couple of years ago, he said, “Go f**k yourself.” John McCain, someone Gerson praises in his column for his civility, has cursed out most of his Republican colleagues who have dared to disagree with him. (Last year, discussing immigration policy, McCain screamed at Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), saying “F**k you! This is chickens**t stuff.”)

And we should be worried that Franken might worsen the “vulgarity and viciousness” of modern-day politics? How, with a few scabrous jokes? My hunch is, our political system will survive just fine. (Indeed, given Norm Coleman’s priorities and policy positions, bawdy humor should be low on voters’ list of priorities.)

Ultimately, the biggest problem with Gerson’s complaining isn’t that he’s a prude; it’s that his priorities are hopelessly misguided. Josh Marshall noted:

…Michael Gerson, who helped bring us Dick Cheney, state-sanctioned torture and official lies to lead the country to war lets us know that Al Franken is the Vulgarian at the Gate. He’s also concerned about “the cooperation and mutual respect necessary in a functioning democracy.”

Exactly. Gerson was a top aide in the Bush White House. He wants to talk about “vulgarity and viciousness”? The day after we learn that a CIA counterterrorism lawyer told interrogators at Gitmo in 2002, “If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong”?

The mind reels.

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