Earl Lauer Butz was not one to soften his abrasive speech when discussing the issues facing the Department of Agriculture. He brushed off criticism, hitting back at his foes with with disparaging put-downs or jokes. When women across the country organized protests and boycotts in response to a sudden spike in food prices, Butz commented that if they did not have “such a low level of economic intelligence,” they would understand that prices had gone up across the board and that “you can’t get more by paying less.” He was more abrupt on another occasion, saying the boycotts were a result of "stupid women and crazed housewives."
Butz's remarks did not get him in trouble until November of 1974. Pope Paul VI had expressed his opposition to the use of artificial birth control as a way of controlling population growth and helping to alleviate hunger. At a press conference, Butz responded to the papal position in part by putting on a faux Italian accent and saying, "He no play-a the game, he no make-a the rules." Realizing that he had gone too far, Butz quickly asked the reporters to consider the joke off the record. But since this request has to be made before a statement to be honored, the wisecrack was fair game for the morning papers.
Catholics and Italians were enraged that a Cabinet official would make such a mockery of the Pope. The Archdiocese of New York led a campaign demanding Butz's resignation unless he apologized for the "crude, pointed insult directed at Pope John Paul VI, spiritual leader of the world's Catholics." The outcry was enough for President Gerald Ford to call for a meeting with Butz to ascertain what had happened. He subsequently rebuked the Secretary of Agriculture and ordered him to make a formal apology.
The apology was enough to settle the matter. But two years later, the public would be reminded of Butz's propensity for crude humor when he made a joke so appalling that it ended his government career.
Butz was born near Albion, Indiana on July 3, 1909. He grew up working on the family farm before attending Purdue University, graduating in 1932. He returned to the farm for another year of work, then became a research fellow with the Federal Land Bank in Louisville, Kentucky. He went back to his studies soon after, earning Purdue's first doctorate in agricultural economics in 1937.
Most of Butz's life would be centered around the university. He joined Purdue's faculty and became the head of the agricultural economics department from 1946 to 1954. He left the school for three years to serve as assistant secretary of agriculture under President Dwight Eisenhower. He again returned to Purdue in 1957 to become the dean of the College of Agriculture, remaining there for another 10 years. Butz tried to make a return to politics in 1968 by seeking the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana, but was unsuccessful. Instead, he remained at Purdue as the dean of continuing education as well as the vice president of the Purdue Research Foundation.
Butz was already a controversial choice for a Cabinet post when President Richard Nixon nominated him to replace Clifford Hardin as Secretary of Agriculture, but it was not due to his off-color wit. Rather, a number of senators were disturbed by his unabashed connections to large agribusiness concerns. Butz served on the boards of a number of these corporations, and when it came to smaller farms his philosophy was that they needed to grow and adapt if they wanted to remain relevant. "The family farm must be preserved but I do not want to lock it in concrete," he said during the confirmation hearings in the Senate. "If the family farm I grew up on had not adjusted we would be shucking corn by hand and we would be knocking potato bugs off potatoes with a wooden handle...The family farm has to adjust. It has to produce more in the days ahead to survive." The concerns about Butz's business philosophy, as well as his opposition to the free school lunch program and his call for cuts to food stamp aid, made for a divisive decision. Voting mostly along party lines, with Democrats and a handful of farm state Republicans opposed, the Senate was 51-44 in favor of Butz becoming the new Secretary of Agriculture.
Butz immediately pushed for a new approach to agriculture, putting a heavy focus on exports. He encouraged farmers to boost their production, increasing the size of their crops so the surplus could be sold overseas. Meanwhile, government subsidies to farmers would be sharply reduced. The system revamped the New Deal farm policies of price supports, government grain purchases, and letting some land lie fallow to avoid soil erosion; now the government would make direct payments to farmers based on a set price for a product. Both the New Deal and Butz models sought to get farmers a fair price for their crop in a bad year. With the Butz model, farmers were encouraged to grow as much as possible and sell at any price, since the government would make up the difference if their sale price was less than the government's benchmark.
Butz was trying to strike a delicate balance. The surplus sales would allow farm income to increase, while the cost of government subsidies would decrease and food prices would remain stable. But the combination of excess crops and reduced price supports could also harm farmers during surplus years, while heavy exports could lead to increased food prices and food shortages. A $30 million grain shipment to the Soviet Union in 1972 was the first major export, and it led directly to the spike in prices, food shortages, and subsequent protests and boycotts.
The policy was successful in its other goals, however. Farm income increased 20 percent between 1970 and 1976, while government subsidies fell from $3.7 billion to $500 million in the same period. Butz's supporters argued that the rising tide lifted all boats, helping to increase agricultural profitability overall. Food exports continued, including a 16.5 million ton grain shipment to the Soviet Union in 1975 and another one of 2.2 million tons in 1976.
But the ripple effect was also apparent in less savory ways as well. Poultry farmers were hit hard, as grain producers were able to corner the market on feed. Some were forced into contracts with food processors, having to ramp up production for little or no payout. Other poultry farmers were so desperate to keep feed prices manageable that they slaughtered any chicks they wouldn't be able to raise. More recent critics have suggested that Butz's policies inhibited agricultural progress in developing countries and helped increase obesity rates in the United States.
The fears that Butz would give preference to large agribusinesses while taking an "adapt or die" philosophy toward smaller farms were well-founded. Large grain exporters were allowed to buy up surpluses at bargain prices while further benefiting from subsidies. Officials from the Department of Agriculture often found high-level positions in agribusiness after they left government service. Susan Demarco, a founder of the Agribusiness Accountability Project, declared, "Secretary Butz is not a friend of family farmers; he is their funeral director." Carol Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America, said Butz was "a spokesman for the big corporate farmers, for the food processors, and for the grocery people. He's not on the side of farmers or consumers. He's on the side of people who buy from farmers and sell to consumers."
Butz brushed aside such allegations, saying that they were politically motivated. He defended his policies, saying that smaller farmers were less efficient. Stopping the exports and deferring more to small producers, he argued, would lead to less food production and higher government subsidies, while shortages and increased food prices would continue. Butz also criticized agricultural unions of being selfish, and he was unsympathetic to concerns about the use of pesticides and chemicals to increase crop yields. “Before we go back to organic agriculture, somebody is going to have to decide what 50 million people we are going to let starve," he said.
Ford retained Butz following Nixon's resignation, but there were rumors that he was not long for the post. In 1975, it was suggested that Ford considered Butz to be too much of a liability for his 1976 election chances and that he planned to appoint a new Secretary of Agriculture before then. In fact, Butz had sought to leave the post for personal reasons the year before, but Ford convinced him to stay on. When Jimmy Carter became the Democratic nominee for President in 1976, he made it clear that he would not keep Butz in the Cabinet if he was elected.
In August of 1976, Butz was flying back to Washington from the Republican National Convention with singers Pat Boone and Sonny Bono as well as John W. Dean III, who had served as White House Counsel under Nixon and testified as a key witness for the prosecution in the Watergate scandal. Dean had recently finished a prison term for his role in Watergate and had been hired by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the convention. Boone asked Butz how the GOP could attract more black voters.
Butz replied, "The only thing the coloreds are looking for in life are tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit."
The comment made it into the Rolling Stone article penned by Dean, though it was attributed only to a Cabinet official. New Times magazine investigated further, analyzing the itineraries of Cabinet members and naming Butz as the offending party. The comment was lewd enough that most newspapers could only paraphrase it. But once members of both major political parties learned of the statement, they began to call for Butz to resign or for Ford to fire him. Ford again gave Butz a "severe reprimand" for "highly offensive" rhetoric, and Butz again issued a public apology.
This time, the controversy didn't go away. The Carter campaign criticized Ford for a lack of leadership, saying he too easily forgave officials for their misconduct and that Butz's remarks were offensive enough that he should have been fired. The public had not forgotten Ford's hasty pardon of Nixon in the wake of Watergate; the Butz incident, Carter's campaign charged, was just another attempt at whitewashing. This time, it seemed that Ford was hoping the scandal would evaporate so that Butz could stay in the Cabinet and help direct more of the farm vote to Ford.
With the pressure continuing to mount shortly before the election, Butz announced that he would resign. He said “the use of a bad racial commentary in no way reflects my real attitude,” and hoped that the action would remove any suspicions that Ford or his administration were racist. But Butz was not entirely contrite. He complained that he had been repeating an old joke, and that the remark was taken out of context. "This is the price I pay for a gross indiscretion in a private conversation," he griped. Butz also said he would continue to advocate for Ford during his campaign unless the President asked him not to. Ford accepted the resignation, saying it was "one of the saddest decisions of my presidency." John A. Knebel, the undersecretary of agriculture, took over the position.
Opinions differed on whether the comments truly reflected Butz's beliefs. Sympathizers suggested that no one was likely to come out unscathed if all their private conversations were made public; Butz was simply a victim of a bad joke that became publicized, they argued. Critics said Butz's offensive comments had enough of a pattern that they implied disdain for certain racial and ethnic groups. The Carter campaign continued to criticize Ford's leadership and handling of the situation, accusing the President of waiting until after the release of opinion polls to decide what to do.
Butz again returned to Purdue to serve as dean emeritus of the school of agriculture, but also became a much sought-after lecturer on farm issues. Risque language continued to be a trademark of his, but none of his comments elicited further controversy. Butz was critical of Democratic farm policies in general, but was more complimentary of Carter due to the new President's agricultural background. "Say what you will about his being a peanut farmer and all that born again baloney, he is a very skilled politician," Butz said in a 1977 speech. "He is the most skilled politician who has been in the White House since Franklin D Roosevelt."
When Butz got in trouble again, it was related to his lectures but not to their content. He was charged with fraudulently understating his 1978 federal taxable income by failing to report more than $148,000 earned in the talks. In May of 1981, he pleaded guilty to the charge. Butz said he had been very busy at the time and that he willfully decided to file in a lower tax bracket. "I was not in a strong cash flow position as of April 15," he admitted. "I could have borrowed money. I didn't." Butz was sentenced to 30 days in jail and five years of probation, and also ordered to make restitution on his unpaid taxes. The plea was part of a deal in which the government agreed not to investigate Butz's taxes from 1977. He served 25 days behind bars before his release.
The sentence did not have any major effect on Butz's lecturing circuit or his work at Purdue. His talks were successful enough that he was able to make a $1 million donation to the school of agriculture in 1999. Butz's earlier indiscretions would hurt him one last time in 2005, when Purdue considered naming a lecture hall for him. The plan was met with student protests and ultimately scrapped. Butz died in his sleep on February 2, 2008.
Sources: "Butz is Confirmed to Cabinet Position" in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Dec. 3 1971, "Catholics Want Earl Butz Removed" in the Tuscaloosa News on Nov. 27 1974, "Pope Remark by Earl Butz Under Attack" in the Observer-Reporter on Nov. 29 1974, "Earl Butz: Controversial Figure Regarding Today's Food Prices" in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on March 7 1975, "Earl Butz: A Controversial Man and His Agriculture" in the Palm Beach Post-Times on Jun. 27 1976, "President Reprimands Earl Butz" in the Eugene Register-Guard on Oct. 2 1976, "Butz' Ouster May Be Soon" in the Eugene Register-Guard on Oct. 3 1976, "Earl Butz Resigns Under Pressure" in the Observer-Reporter on Oct. 5 1976, "Earl Butz: Profile of a Barnburner" in the Miami News on Oct. 6 1976, "Butz' Words Paraphrased in Most Family Newspapers" in the Miami News on Oct. 6 1976, "'Private Joke' Ignited Public Furor" in the Miami News on Oct. 6 1976, "Earl Butz Wanted Resignation Later" in the Spokesman-Review on Oct. 12 1976, "Earl Butz Predicts Global Warfare if Food Production Doesn't Rise" in the Montreal Gazette on Aug. 29 1977, "Earl Butz Pleads Guilty to Income Tax Evasion" in the Toledo Blade on May 23 1981, "Earl Butz, Ex-U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Dies at 98" in Bloomberg on Feb. 3 2008, "Earl L. Butz, Felled by Racial Remark, Is Dead at 98" in the New York Times on Feb. 4 2008, "Earl Butz, History's Victim" on Slate.com on Feb. 4 2008, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal by George C. Kohn