The Earl Butz End of a 'Joke'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because while politics doesn’t have to be polite, it also need not be rude.
By Eugene S. Robinson
In a 1911 letter to Bess Wallace, the woman who would later be his wife, future President Harry S. Truman was in a jovial mood. Along with various attempts to pitch woo and assorted Midwestern homespun chitchat, Truman waxed philosophical. “I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Wills says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a nigger from mud and then threw what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I.”
In 1945 he was president and when Harry wasn’t giving ’em hell, he was overseeing an aggressive uptick in making America great again as evidenced by high levels of postwar prosperity. Then came the firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the conclusion of the Korean War and a Gallup Poll approval rating of 22 percent, a rating later matched only by the eventually disgraced Richard M. Nixon.
And Truman was a Democrat. Very specifically one who inherited the presidency upon Roosevelt’s death but won election to the highest office in his own right in a political landscape that found no scandal in his published words, possibly because in 1911, or 1948, or 1953, those sentiments, based on even casual readings of bios of T.S. Eliot, H.L. Mencken, Ezra Pound and others, were not out of the mainstream.
Flash-forward to a commercial plane ride to California immediately after the 1976 Republican National Convention with Secretary of Agriculture Earl L. Butz. The flight had begun innocently enough. Butz, in front of a coterie that included Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher, singer Pat Boone and various political operatives, was on a roll with a dirty joke about dog-and-skunk sex. Whether there was any discomfort accruing around a conversation that even casual observers might have guessed would not be improved on, is not known.
I’ll tell you what the coloreds want. …
Earl L. Butz, Secretary of Agriculture, 1971–76
What is known? What Butz said in response to a query from longtime Republican Pat Boone about why the party wasn’t attracting Black folks: “I’ll tell you what the coloreds want. It’s three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit.” It was August. On Oct. 4, Butz heeded calls from both side of the aisle for his ouster and resigned. But not before a nation struggled to process his “joke” and Butz’s own spin that his quotes were “sometimes … too colorful.” And, as he told The New York Times, “the use of a bad racial commentary in no way reflects my real attitude.”
The Fourth Estate’s response? The Associated Press sent the quote out unaltered. Time magazine reported the comment, concealing its crudeness. Rolling Stone used the quote but without attribution. Some newspapers invited readers to come by the office to hear the unexpurgated remark. Other papers volunteered to mail the quote to readers. In the end, only two newspapers — in Ohio and Wisconsin — ran it unaltered.
The tide, in any case, had turned, and both Butz and President Gerald R. Ford would have taken it on the arches by the end of 1976. Butz ended up with a dean emeritus gig at Purdue, pleaded guilty to undercounting his 1978 taxes and served a brief jail term. In 2008, he died in his sleep at age 98.
“Today it would make them heroes — at least among approximately a third of the American population,” says Mordecai G. Sheftall, history professor and author of Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze. And while the Butz incident stands out over the course of half a century as one of the best worst ways to get shown the door in public life — as far as we know, Butz didn’t kill or sexually assault anyone — in light of public discourse that’s grown coarser, we’re left to wonder: Is Sheftall right?
“Look, Butz was part of this country-boy following,” says Ed Newton, a former Los Angeles Times writer and member of Pulitzer Prize–winning teams that reported on the 1992 LA riots. “But Butz’s famous quote referred to something that he and millions of other American men aspired to — ‘nice work if you can get it, I say.’”
“The insult was — and a bitter one it was — that it summed up all that millions of Black men aspired to,” Newton continues. “Nobody was prepared to accept that sort of lamely cynical trash anymore, not even most white people.”