Former Sen. Rick Santorum used a mild expletive to chastise a journalist recently. And despite all the media and political attention the episode has received, it's really not a BFD.
True, Santorum's comments—he accused the mild-mannered and supremely professional New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny of "lying," and said that if Zeleny wrote something along the lines of what his question suggested, it would be "bullshit,"—were newsworthy, if only because they came from Santorum. But the reaction to the word itself is vastly out of proportion to the episode itself.
Attacking the press is hardly a new strategy, although it's often a last-gasp effort by a candidate who can't communicate or sell his or her message, and resorts to blaming the media for not parroting the candidate's bumper stickers. This is not to say that some questions asked by some reporters aren't cheap or manipulative or ill-informed, but the better elected officials and candidates manage to thwart those questions without getting personal. Still, in the heat of a tiring and intense campaign, it's understandable that a candidate—even someone as pious as Santorum—would use a swear word.
Remarkably, it's Santorum's use of the word for animal excrement that got him the most attention. Zeleny had asked a perfectly reasonable question about Santorum's characterization of rival former Gov. Mitt Romney as the "worst" candidate—whether Romney is allegedly the worst Republican to face Obama or the worst to take on the healthcare law in the campaign was what Santorum disputed. It seems like a minor point, but Santorum needs to care about it, because if front-runner Romney indeed wins the nomination, it won't help the Republicans to have Democrats reminding everyone that Santorum said Romney was the "worst" Republican to face Obama. Santorum could have handled it better, at the very least correcting the statement without suggesting Zeleny was deliberately distorting it. He could have said, "Let me be clear. What I meant was ..." Instead, an agitated Santorum made it personal, which appeals to people who hate the media or just in general don't like someone telling them things that counter their views of the world.
But why did Santorum's use of the common expletive "bullshit‘' make such news? For that matter, why was Sen. John McCain irked that the excellent film Game Change portrayed him swearing a lot—not at a stranger, and not in a personal way, just behind closed doors with campaign advisers, which is a pretty common occurrence in campaigns? The film depicts McCain picking a startlingly unprepared governor as his running mate, and what jumps out at him is the use of swear words? When President Obama signed the healthcare law, Vice President Joe Biden leaned over—unaware he was being caught on the microphones—and said, "This is a big f---ing deal." It was. And while it would have been inappropriate for Biden to use those words at a congressional hearing, was it really all that awful that he used the words in what he thought was a private moment?
For Santorum, the use of the word is somewhat notable, because it belies his clean image and exposes his frustration with a campaign that has been unexpectedly successful, but appears not to be one headed toward the nomination. But if we're going to focus on the words candidates use, how about making some other choices? What about all the promises candidates make they know very well they cannot keep? What about the outright distortion of facts on the economy, the stimulus, and the potential for a nuclear weapon in Iran? The game of the campaign is part of the story. But the substance of the campaign issues is far more important.