Let's Hear It for 'Bullshit!'

In 1991, Senator Tom Harkin was considering a run for the presidency and in a speech to his community in Iowa he used the word "bullshit" -- for which he was scolded and taken to task. He phoned me wanting to know how I thought he should respond. I answered him in a four-page letter. Working on my memoirs, I just came across that letter in an ancient file. As you read it, and hopefully you will, substitute the hurt and damage being inflicted on our middle class and average voters today for the events of 1991 and I think the letter reads like something I could send to Harry Reid or Charles Schumer, indeed anyone on the Congressional left -- and some few who are right of center -- today.

August 7, 1991

Dear Senator:

We spoke just a few minutes ago and I'm in the car now, dictating into a machine at my office -- so please forgive the grammar, syntax, et cetera.

I'm absolutely convinced that your use of the phrase "bullshit" is a thoroughbred, a total winner. I think it is so indigenously American, and so expressive of a mood in the country just below the conscience of most Americans. They are fed up with the S & L scandal; fed up with BCCI; fed up with the possibility of high office involvement in the Iran Contra affair; fed up with the real situation about the economy; fed up about that compact between companies and workers that used to exist which meant that workers in company towns followed fathers and uncles into life-long jobs; fed up with the drug problem and inner-city problems, and the failing infrastructure of our bridges and roads and city streets; fed up with 1,001 domestic frustrations that the President and the Administration are not addressing.

Now, if anyone in this country can tell you that the expression "fed up" is the equivalent in terms of voicing the true feelings of an indigenous American, as the expression "bulishit," I want to meet that person. If anybody can tell me that there are another two syllables that can express what lies just beneath the consciousness of most Americans at this minute -- and all Americans when they know what they are angry minute about, I want to know what that is.

"Bullshit" is so uniquely American and so uniquely expressive when one doesn't want to use really foul language there simply is no expression as meaningful, as passionate, as sincere, as unifying in 50 states as the simple expression, "bullshit."

Tom, I beg you not to listen to the relative handful of people who will accuse you of a foul mouth. That they are only a handful will become very evident over time.

I told you my story about the expression "son of a bitch" at the tail end of an episode of "Maude" in 1976. I asked a very decent man who headed Program Practices at that time to give me something else Maude could say that was as right for the moment, and for the context for which she expressed herself to Walter. He took a day and called up and said there wasn't anything in the English language that he could think of that summed it up, nor
were there any other words that he could put into her mouth that accurately expressed what she was feeling. The deal I made with him was that if he could not come up with a word to supplant it, and tell me that he truly believed that his phrase really did the job as well as "son of a bitch," I would use it. Anyway, he could not come up with another phrase and so Maude's "son of a bitch" went on the air. Not a state seceded from the Union.

There were no real letters except expressions of joy that some more ice had been broken.
I would expect the public prudes and doomsday Christians of the far right to react negatively to the use of the word "bullshit," but I can assure you, and would bet anything on it, that if you do use it for just a little while and crack through that first group of newspaper stories, etc., you will have the whole country behind it. There's no doubt in my mind that that
handful of people who yelled to you from the sidelines of that walk you took the other day, "Tell it like it is, Senator" -- no doubt in my mind they will overwhelm others on the other side.

I could hear you say in a speech talking about Reagan's supply-side economics and what it promised to do for us I can -- I can hear you calling it "bullshit -- and suggesting that the use of the term was no less tough, and certainly more American, than George Bush's "voodoo economics." But just sticking with Bush, I think you can build a series of such statements
ten, twelve, fourteen of them -- that end with "bullshit!" Such as:

The S & L crisis is costing the American taxpayer so much, and that means "X" many dollars out of every taxpayer's pocket. When it began, the Bush Administration told us it would only cost:. "Y" amount from the taxpayers' pocket. We all knew at the time it was -- "Bullshit!"

Now we've got the BCCI crisis. The administration has known about these problems for years. They say they're on top of it now. But are they? I say, "Bullshit!" (Or -- What do you say?" _______ !)

They're telling us right now that we are not in a recession, that they've created more new jobs than have been lost. And I (we) say -- "bullshit!"

My head spins at the amount of these rallying cries you can create. And get the audience to yell "bullshit" with you. I think you can pick up the country in your arms and carry it anywhere you want to go. One thing only I caution. Use the phrase about things that really, really matter to you. Use the phrase where it comes truly from your gut where you know that this Administration has told the American people absolute bullshit. Where you know their policies are absolute bullshit. Where it's troubling you in your gut as you think about it, and your head as you think it -- where you can look at any little kid whose parent has taken him to hear you and think, "On behalf of this child and this child's future, the American people have got to come together on what they know is bullshit."

There's another important point in that last thought. You are not telling the American people anything they don't know. They lead emotionally crowded lives with all of the day-to-day,
personal problems that plague them. They only need somebody that's going to remind them that we have to separate the wheat from the chaff, the reality from the bullshit; they need somebody to push their buttons. But that's all you're doing is pushing the button, reminding them. You're not educating them about what "bullshit" is or what it isn't. The American people know when they're being bullshitted -- but sometimes our minds sleep, worn out from concerns closer at hand.

There's a reason why Paddy Chayefsky's line out of the movie "Network," "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore," will be remembered forever in our country. It pushed a button. But only for the relative handful that saw the film. Tom, I believe that the proper use of the expression "bullshit" coming from you in this campaign can be a slogan to inspire one of the great movements and transformations in American political history.

I think after you've used the word a few times unashamedly, you can tell the American people in a speech just what you perhaps said to the press in answer to their questions about why you use the expression. You can tell them that you searched your soul and you searched your mind and you searched your friends and your staff for an expression, any expression, in the English language that sums up what America is feeling when it senses it is being lied to or mislead. You are reminding them of what they already know.

We don't have to do 60-second television spots denigrating the other guy as if that's the only way to get elected.

We don't have to conduct an entire campaign in 60-second television spots without letting the American people know who we really are.

We don't have to tell the American people things are great when they know they aren't. That is all _________!

And most of all, Tom -- the American people know don't really have the ready cure for every domestic problem just because we're candidates. To claim that we do is ________! It's okay to say, "I don't know. Send me up the mountain, let me look around, and I'll tell you where we are and where we have to go."

The American people know it is "bullshit" to consider that one man has all the answers. Somebody has to get to the office, get to the pinnacle of that mountain, and get the advice of the best experts in America, in order to develop programs for many of the domestic issues that confront us. Anybody who says otherwise is handing them a line of -- "bullshit."

Tom, I could run on and on. I wanted to get this to you quickly in the hope that it will express the essence of what I feel. To be purely and only political, let's also remember how formidable a candidate Bush will be -- not just with what we know now but what is yet to come by way of surprises. You're going to need something winning and different to get across. What I also like about the use of such an indigenous, backyard, American colloquial expression, is that in a sense, it sums up the guy who uses it. Nobody is really going to think you're a foul-mouth. Not you. They can say that, but it isn't going to stick. What's going to stick with the American people about this Harkin guy is: he dares; he cares; he's passionate; he's one of us; and he understands that time is running out.

We might talk about using "bullshit" sparingly at the
sparingly at the beginning -- sparingly but not tentatively --
pacing it so that people in Florida who read that you said it in Illinois, can't wait until you make that trip to Florida, so they can sit through your speech waiting for the moment. From time to time, you disappoint them -- use it sparingly. Make them ask for it. And,
disappoint them Tom, they will! But that's another discussion, and I would love to have it with you.

If anybody wishes to talk further, I'd be happy to talk to them. I have one of those children I spoke about above. Ben is three years old and when I look into his face, as often as not I think, "What is this country he's growing into going to be like?" I don't want him to grow up in a country where the wheels are greased by bullshit. In Fred Allen's words, it's only got us on a treadmill to oblivion.