IN THE ANNALS OF EAVESDROPPING, Monday was a banner day. An oblivious President Bush sat in front of a live microphone at the Group of 8 summit near St. Petersburg and held forth on such topics as Diet Coke, politicians who "talk too damn long," the notion that China and Russia are both really big countries and the sweater British Prime Minister Tony Blair bought him for his birthday.
But the president's piece de resistance was his use of the word "shit" to characterize Hezbollah's recent activities in the Middle East. The offhand utterance, delivered as he buttered a roll, was broadcast around the world. Many news outlets bleeped it out or disguised it with asterisks; a few, like this newspaper and CNN, let it fly. By Tuesday, a clip of his remarks was the most popular video download on CNN.com.
And yet, when it came to outrage over the president's language, nothing ever really hit the fan. Despite the frenzy of schoolyard-style interest, no one really seemed to be too surprised that the president used a four-letter word. Perhaps it was because -- unlike another famous use of obscenity by Vice President Dick Cheney two years ago, when he told Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) to attempt a feat that would require nearly unattainable anatomical flexibility -- Bush's use wasn't part of a personal insult. Or perhaps it's because, for better or worse, the world is soaked in blue prose, from cable TV to coyly censored lyrics on the radio to those cringe-worthy "fcuk" T-shirts from a certain retailer.
Swearing is still a sign of poor manners -- to this day, nothing horrifies a parent like hearing a child drop the f-bomb -- but it's an increasingly fine line that separates knowing hipness (epitomized by such shows as "South Park") from bad taste (anyone remember Andrew Dice Clay?).
Happily, the fine line does still exist, which invites us to parse the president's words -- and, in this case, to applaud them. To our ears, the president's directness was a refreshing antidote to the scripted and tortured public language politicians usually offer as they travel the country talking to handpicked audiences or defensively fielding questions at news conferences. Bush's remark to Blair gives a tiny glimpse of a candid public official thinking aloud about relevant issues and describing the situation as he sees it.
Yes, the president's delivery was crude. Certainly there were more precise and creative ways he could have elucidated his belief that Syria should exert its influence to stop Hezbollah from attacking Israel. But who doesn't curse in moments of frustration or passion? At least Bush's words were honest.