Oh, for the Days of ‘Expletive Deleted’

I took a glance in the mirror the other day and noticed that the old bicuspids and molars are a great deal longer than they were during a well-remembered era known as “just yesterday.” It was not vanity that inspired this bit of self-reflection, but a knee-buckling realization that the silver strands growing out of my scalp are not, after all, a temporary condition brought on by a faulty hair-care product.

Oh, the ravages of age! Why, I’m so old that I remember the days when this innocent nation was shocked to realize that politicians occasionally use language unfit for print! Children, let me tell you about Watergate; let me tell you of the shock and horror of seeing the phrase “expletive deleted” in written transcripts of actual White House conversations; let me tell you of another time in history when politicians were thought to have vocabularies consisting of words not less than six letters in length. And then came Watergate. Richard Nixon and his top aides were caught in the act of cussing. Politicians, it turned out, were intimately familiar with words that they clearly did not learn from their careful reading of family newspapers.

Are you not horrified? Ah, youth! How could anyone with short teeth understand the shocking power of the phrase “expletive deleted”?

Nowadays, of course, it is possible to turn on the television and hear duly elected officials hurling epithets that are not, in fact, deleted, but indeed are dispatched into living rooms where civic-minded tykes are gathered in fond hope of becoming educated in matters of state. This very scenario presented itself to the earnest viewers of New York’s all-news channel on April 7, when cameras and microphones recorded a decidedly graphic exchange between a representative of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s civility police and a member of the City Council.

While The New York Observer does not shrink from its responsibility to print all four letters of the oaths occasionally uttered by public people, let it be noted that this corner of page 5 remains a stalwart believer in the judicious use of the #, the ! and other symbols traditionally employed to indicate the presence of alternative language usage. In summary, the mayoral aide said: “*@#!,” to which the City Council member offered the following elegant riposte: “&*!@.”

Now this made for great copy in the newspapers, and it was noted with some delight that the aide’s boss, Mayor Giuliani, has ordered us to be more civil to each other. This then became a classic “gotcha” story, an honored staple of the art of newspapering.

For shock value, however, it didn’t make the grade, and we have that Nixon fellow and his deleted expletives to thank for that. This recent exchange of %!*#’s did, however, provide something in the way of enlightenment, for mixed in among the *%!@’s was a threat made by the mayoral aide to a Council member. The member’s behavior, the aide said, would hereby disqualify the member’s constituents from receiving a beacon school.

You have to be among the 65.3 citizens of New York who follow such things to realize the gravity of that threat and to appreciate the light it cast on the dark rooms where political deal-making gets done. Beacon schools, a fine idea left over from the Dinkins administration, provide after-school programs in communities throughout the city. Council members believe that their fortunes depend on the illusion that they have the wit and clout to snag goodies from the public treasury that are not available to citizens with less gifted legislators. Generally, these goodies take the form of street lights, cash grants for youth sports teams and other such business. But, New York being what it is, money for beacon schools-for schoolchildren-gets thrown into the goody bag.

Council members are well aware that access to this kind of largesse actually has little to do with their power and wit (lucky for them), and everything to do with unswerving loyalty to those who control the purse strings. These people work in the offices of the Mayor and the Speaker of the City Council.

And so the understanding is reached that by being good little Council members, they will be able to return to their districts and say: “Fellow citizens, with all the odds aligned against me, I had the wit and clout to obtain a beacon school for our children, who are, after all, the leaders of the future!” Great applause always follows, as do electoral victories.

The foul-mouthed mayoral aide provided the public service of reminding us that funding for schoolchildren is contingent upon the degree to which small-time elected officials are amenable to the wishes and desires of the political superiors. In a certain circle of know-it-alls, this is not a startling development; the Mayor himself chuckled when asked about such political horse-trading: “You mean that has ever happened in politics?” he said with his usual light touch. “Do people make trades and deals? Gosh, I can’t imagine that would happen.”

Certainly not in matters involving children. That would be just plain &*@!%! Oh, for the Days of ‘Expletive Deleted’