I recently read The Tumult and the Shouting, the memoirs of famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, back to back with Against All Enemies, the memoirs of former National Security Council aide Richard Clarke.
The most striking stylistic difference between the two, I think, is that Howard Stern could read Rice’s book, word for word, on the air, without being fired. Not so for Clarke’s.
Rice, who spent more than 50 years in the newspaper business, set his book mainly on playing fields, in clubhouses and in barrooms, often among pretty rough characters. But only once does Rice allude to one of his subjects using foul language — it was Babe Ruth — and even then Rice did so for good reason and with pointed effect.
Clarke’s story is mainly set in the White House and other seats of government power. His subjects are presidents, White House aides and high-powered policymakers. Yet, foul language flies from Clarke’s pages, often gratuitously.
If Clarke were to read many of his passages verbatim on TV, he could spark a bigger crisis at the FCC than Bono or Janet Jackson.
Here’s a bowdlerized sampling of how he variously employed one particular cuss word as a noun, pronoun, adjective and verb:
Then there is the dramatic climax of Clarke’s narrative of his years in the Clinton White House. It comes just before the turn of the millennium, when National Security Adviser Sandy Berger calls a meeting with the attorney general and the directors of both the FBI and the CIA to brief them on anticipated attacks by al Qaeda. Clarke (on page 212) describes Berger addressing the group as follows: “‘I spoke with the President and he wants you all to know . . .’ Berger looked at Janet Reno, Louis Freeh and George Tenet, ‘. . . this is it, nothing more important, all assets. We stop this (expletive deleted).'”
In the more genteel world of professional athletics, Grantland Rice describes the night he invited Babe Ruth to dine with Mr. and Mrs. Walter Lippmann — Mr. Lippmann being the political columnist who had served as assistant secretary of war to President Woodrow Wilson.
In the Yankees-Cubs World Series the previous October, Ruth had famously pointed to the bleachers before hitting a home run. Mrs. Lippmann asked him to tell the story.
The Babe obliged in language worthy of a senior Clinton White House official. As Rice relates it — carefully placing the word “censored” where appropriate in his text — the Sultan of Swat informed Mrs. Lippmann that as he headed toward first base after smacking his homer he addressed the Cubs pitcher as follows: “How do you like them apples, you (censored, censored, censored).”
From beginning to end, Ruth used “censored” words no less than 11 times to tell his tale. “The Babe’s baccalaureate finished,” wrote Rice, “a battered Mrs. Lippmann mumbled that they’d have to be leaving.”
Judging by Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, had Walter Lippmann served in a more recent administration than Wilson’s, he might have grown accustomed to hearing Ruthian language in White House councils. Clarke himself might have dutifully recorded it all — verbatim — in a best-selling memoir.
So, what is the point to this contrast between Rice and Clarke? Surely, in the heat of the moment, in private conversations, bad language has been used since language has been known (including, regrettably, by this writer).
But since Rice wrote his memoirs in 1954, America has passed over many lamentable cultural watersheds — and Clarke’s book merely marks the latest. To this day, if a sports writer for a daily newspaper published graphic locker room language to depict what goes on in a locker room, he would be scorned if not fired. But Clarke published locker room language in what has been greeted as a serious book about foreign policy — and our entire national elite has utterly failed to notice.