Here’s today’s news quiz: What prominent figure on the U.S. political scene recently unleashed the following colorful witticism about his adversaries (abbreviated here for publication in a family newspaper):

“I F---ing Hate Those ... Motherf---ers!”

Easy, you may be thinking. Who else could it be but Anthony Scaramucci, President Donald Trump’s flamed-out communications director, whose one brief whining moment at the White House last month reached its crazed climax in a foul-mouthed New Yorker interview that wounded the delicate sensibilities of the American media.

A front-page Star Tribune headline warned of a “Vulgar war for West Wing” set off by Scaramucci’s “crass rant” — so profane that figuring out how to convey his language “tests editors,” according to the San Jose Mercury News, because the quotes were “absolutely bananas” (CNN) and “beyond words” (Washington Post). Distinguished journalists far and wide quivered with similar revulsion.

Fact is, Scaramucci’s F-bomb barrage and orgy of imagined sexual impossibilities were stunningly uncouth. Such baseness at the heights of our political life tempts one to agree with the Post scribe who fretted that “[t]he Trump administration is one long exercise in desensitization.”

Except ... our “desensitization” may not have just begun with Trump and company.

You see, you’re mistaken if you guessed that “I F---ing Hate Those ... Motherf---ers!” must be a Mount Scaramucci eruption. It’s actually a line gleefully spelled out, not once but three times, in the new, much-admired memoir of Al Franken, Minnesota’s distinguished U.S. senator.

Now let me hurry to acknowledge that Franken says this line is and always was a joke, which in his view answers any criticism. A large portion of “Giant of the Senate” consists of Franken refighting the battles of the 2008 election campaign that put him in the Senate — complaining all over again about the scrutiny the race brought to a catalog of profane “jokes” from Franken’s previous career as a comedian and political satirist.

Franken defends not just the zinger already mentioned, but also his calling Republicans “shameless d--ks,” his once proposing a joke about raping a newswoman during a late “Saturday Night Live” writing session, and other hilarious highlights of his show business career that fueled controversy in 2008. He devotes a whole chapter to the “I ... Hate Those ...!” line, which had appeared in one of his pre-Senate political books.

And as it happens, I’m a minor character in that chapter.

In 2008, I was, as Franken puts it, “a conservative columnist ... who also happened to be the Star Tribune’s political editor.” I partnered at the time on a blog with my good friend Eric Black, then a political reporter at the Star Tribune, now with MinnPost.

The way the senator remembers it, Black and I were “obsessed with what Tice referred to as my ‘outbursts,’ which, he opined, were ‘too crude’ to print.”

As political editor for Minnesota’s largest newspaper, it was sort of my job to be “obsessed” with everything about the state’s most important election contest that year. And, yes, covering Franken’s record presented editors with “tests” back then, rather as covering Scaramucci did more recently. (Although several prominent national publications simply printed Scaramucci’s raw words.)

I, on the other hand, offended Franken and his supporters in 2008 by employing a “work-around” for readers who wanted to see the would-be senator’s drolleries for themselves. I linked to a less-inhibited, belligerently conservative blog.

A desperate measure in more squeamish times where political porn was concerned. Nowadays one could just link to the New Yorker.

Franken goes on to describe how he openly debated this whole matter with Black at a public event. The senator was (and is) ... well ... obsessed with the idea that ordinary folk can’t understand the subtleties of his humor. He had originally presented “I F---ing Hate Those Right-Wing Motherf---ers!” as a title he had in mind for his next book. And to this day he insists that Black and I refused to understand that he was joking — in the sense that he never really intended to use that title.

Baffled about why this matters? Me, too. But never mind. For the record, I never for one moment thought Franken’s crude declaration of hate constituted a real book title. I simply thought it constituted real crudeness — and maybe even real hate — that Minnesota voters had a right to consider for themselves.

Hate, in fact, is another four-letter word Franken still liberally employs. One of the often-quoted lines from the new book is about his bellicose Senate colleague Ted Cruz of Texas. “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz,” Franken writes. “And I hate Ted Cruz.”

Maybe that’s just a joke, too. It’s apparently all over my head.

Franken’s book is often interesting and enjoyable. And as I noted in a 2014 column, when Franken was seeking re-election, despite having “made his political name mainly through name-calling,” he as a senator had “improved his manners ... immersed himself in [policy]” and become impressively “dignified and dull.”

But apparently the old, not-so-dull Al Franken has been finding dignity a little confining. Apart from that indirect 2014 comment, I have not in all these years felt any need to revisit the 2008 “outburst” controversies. They played little role in the 2014 campaign. By and large, so far as I’m aware, most veterans of the “vulgar war” of 2008 accepted that Minnesota voters were fully informed about the nature of Franken’s comedy and elected him, so it was time to move on.

Only Sen. Franken hasn’t moved on.

Anyhow, if standards of civility and decorum are in rough shape today, this wasn’t imposed on Americans suddenly. We did it to ourselves, little by little — mainly by excusing most anything that advanced an ideology or resentment we happened to share.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.