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Political trash-talking

We might as well admit it; we're living in a world of words. On the one hand, we have people like Bill Bennett (author and former Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration and 'Drug Czar' under George H.W. Bush). Bennett's resume is long, but the thing I've admired most about the man is his measured, civil speech. He avoids generalities, never engages in personal animus and always speaks plainly and courteously.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is our current President who often engages in hyperbole peppered (some in private some not) with expletives that make him sound like a cross between Archie Bunker and a sailor who's been at sea for years in the company of men who prefer salty talk. It's easy to understand why opponents and even supporters of the President are offended, especially when they compare him to his two predecessors in the office: Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Both men were careful about deviating from the 'script' that most Presidents have observed: no incendiary comments, no public disparaging remarks about other individuals or even groups they disagree with and no demeaning nicknames (George Bush did have private nicknames for his staff one of which was 'Turdblossom' for Karl Rove).

America's voters had a chance to sample Donald Trump's street corner style during the campaign and watched him demean his opponents by calling them childish names: 'Little Marco' (Marco Rubio) 'Lying Ted' (Ted Cruz) and 'Low energy Jeb' (Jeb Bush). This tactic may have helped him win over voters who had had enough of the lofty rhetoric and empty promises of Barack Obama; they certainly helped him put away his Democrat opponent 'Crooked Hillary' (Hillary Clinton). To some this was payback, to others it was puerile and beneath a well-educated, self-made 70-year old billionaire wanting to be President.

Let's be honest, most Presidents have had moments of vulgarity and many have sworn at their staffs and even friends. The Nixon tapes showed us Richard Nixon's seamy side. Lyndon Johnson was often uncouth and took meetings and even interviews while sitting on the 'throne' in his bathroom. Presidents are human beings and get irritated like the rest of us, but we expect them to resist their impulses to lash out and attack. If we had been flies on the wall of the Oval Office during the Second World War we would probably have heard the saintly FDR and 'everyman' Harry Truman slam their desks and let a few four-letter words fly. The same is true for old Honest Abe as he fought with his cabinet or the opposition during the Civil War.

The second edition of the 20-volume collection of the Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words along with over 47,000 obsolete words. Most adult Americans know between 20,000 and 35,000 words. Most of us can also tell the difference between vulgar words and profane words (profanity is defined as "words that are socially offensive"). These days it's hard to distinguish between what is socially acceptable from that which is out of bounds, but President Trump is finding out just how hard it is to toe that line as was evident by his recent remarks about countries that he is reported to have called, "sh@tholes."

He's also discovered that his opponents are only too willing to chastise him AND ascribe other motives than pure frustration or habit for his use of them. They call him a racist, a homophobe, anti-immigrant, misogynistic, a White Supremacist and much more - because of his wrong choice of words and some of his actions. America knew it didn't elect a great orator when it elected him. It also knew that he was not a politician. What it didn't know was that he may have looked on the Presidency as just another job where he could 'be himself.' Unless he does something to muzzle himself from making future gaffs or inappropriate remarks he will lose support among his base and his party will lose seats in the 2018 mid-terms. There is just so much that Americans are willing to accept in the way of character flaws or 'unpresidential speech' before they either stop listening or join his detractors on the barricades.

All conservative Republicans have a duty to try to convince the President that he is no longer a reality TV star or a real estate mogul. He is a figurehead and a head of state, and those responsibilities far outweigh his preference for acting like the street fighter Donald Trump from Queens. Maybe one solution would be to create a new cabinet position. Call it, "Secretary for Civility and Decorum." Were it up to me I would nominate Bill Bennett to the job. His duty would be to shadow the President wherever he goes and coach him on how to choose his words. Something good would be bound to come of it...or not.

Stephan Helgesen is a retired U.S. diplomat and now political analyst and author. He has written eight books and over 750 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He can be reached at:

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