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Profile: Earl Butz

Earl Butz was a participant or observer in the following events:

Earl Butz.Earl Butz. [Source: Slate]Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz resigns after making a stridently racist joke that is reported in Rolling Stone. Butz, flying from New Mexico to California, found himself on board with singers Pat Boone and Sonny Bono as well as former Nixon White House counsel John Dean, now working as a reporter for Rolling Stone. Butz, whom Time magazine describes as a “gregarious man” with a “barnyard sense of humor,” wanders over to kibitz with Boone and Bono, both active in the Republican Party. When Boone asks why the Republicans aren’t able to attract more black voters, Butz responds: “I’ll tell you what the coloreds want. It’s three things. First, a tight p_ssy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to sh_t.” Dean later reports the joke in his Rolling Stone column, without naming Butz as its source. (Interestingly, a Japanese newspaper sanitized the translation, reporting Butz as saying, “Blacks wanted only three things in life: pleasant family relations, comfortable footwear, and adequate toilet facilities.”) Before long, other media outlets have learned who said it, and Butz was revealed in the media as the perpetrator of the joke.
Ford Initially Defends Butz - President Ford does not immediately fire Butz because the secretary claims that his words were taken out of context; he claims that the joke was preceded with, “Things have come a long way since the days when a ward politician could say…” Ford considers Butz a friend and is reluctant to fire him outright; furthermore, Ford doesn’t want to alienate voters in key farm states. But when both Democrats and Republicans begin calling for Butz’s firing, Butz decides to resign. Butz tells reporters that he is not a racist, and that his resignation “is the price I pay for a gross indiscretion in a private conversation.” Time magazine later reports that Ford’s indecision costs him credibility and support—instead of doing the right thing when the time came, Ford seemed instead to merely cave under pressure. A top Ford aide later says, “I’m afraid some people will start wondering how straight a guy, how nice a fellow the president really is.” Ford loses little support in the farm states; although organizations like the American Farm Bureau Federation bemoan Butz’s resignation, smaller farmers rejoice in his departure, saying that he favored big producers and agribusiness interests over smaller, independent farmers. As for Butz himself, he is remarkably unrepentant and oblivious to the racial content of his humor. He will tell a reporter in the days to follow: “You know, I don’t know how many times I told that joke, and everywhere—political groups, church groups—nobody took offense, and nobody should. I like humor. I’m human.” [Time, 10/18/1976; Reston, 2007, pp. 54]
Casual Racism Mark of Butz's Breed of Politician - In February 2008, in a column marking Butz’s passing, Slate’s Timothy Noah will write that Butz was one of the last of a breed of politicians who routinely peppered their conversations with off-color, racist, and offensive remarks, certain that their power and position made them untouchable. Butz was certainly not the only one in the Nixon and Ford administration to make racist remarks: in 1971, President Nixon himself told Donald Rumsfeld, that blacks “basically are just out of the trees. Now let’s face it, they are.” (Nixon was wise enough not to make such remarks in public.) But by 1976, most lawmakers and office holders had learned to keep such observations to themselves. Noah will write: “Butz was not one of the smarter ones. He was a bigot and, even then, at 66, not a young man. And so he got caught in a paradigm shift. Before Butz, there remained a snickering tolerance among the powerful for jokes denigrating the humanity of blacks, Jews, and homosexuals. After Butz—well, the jokes about gays limped along for awhile, but it finally sank in that racism and anti-Semitism would seldom be tolerated, even in private.” [Slate, 2/4/2008]

Entity Tags: Timothy Noah, Sonny Bono, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Earl Butz, Pat Boone, John Dean

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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