It's Not What You Say, It's Where You Say It

Biden's F-bomb is part of a long and infamous tradition for political VIPs.

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You probably heard that a little differently when you were younger--that it's not always what you say, it's how you say it. And that's often true--depending on the tone, a phrase like "you knucklehead" can sound like a scold, a frustrated endearment or a dismissal.

So yes, your mother was right--how you say what you say counts. But if there are microphones in the room, where you say what you say counts just as much.

Famously flap-jawed Joe Biden can use the F-bomb when he's stuck in traffic, on the basketball court and when he smacks his elbow against the bookcase in his office. What he shouldn't have done is use it in close proximity to the same mic that the president has just used to address the nation. (Note to Joe: That means it's a working mic, right?)

Oops. Fortunately for him (and our amusement), the veep isn't alone. Former Vice President Dick Cheney furiously invited Sen. Patrick Leahy to "go f*** yourself!" when they had a disagreement on the floor of the Senate. According to Time magazine's "A Brief History of Microphone Gaffes," President George W. Bush told British prime minister Tony Blair that the answer to ending the Israel-Hezbollah conflict is "to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh*t"--an aside the whole room heard--because, once again the mic was on.

Jesse Jackson muttered that Barack Obama should be neutered if he didn't get with the black agenda--on Fox News. ("It was very private. And very much a sound bite," a sheepish Jackson admitted the next day.)

Two decades later, James G. Watt, Ronald Reagan's secretary of the interior, gave a speech facetiously touting the diversity of a coal-leasing panel he'd convened: "I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent." (And he knew the mic was on. Dim wattage, indeed!)

So Joey's mom, bless her, isn't here anymore to wash his mouth out with soap. But if somebody had to do that after every politician's impolitic scatological utterances, there'd be nothing left in stock for hand washing. And there's still H1N1 to consider.

Karen Grigsby Bates is a correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).

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is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).