Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz Resigns After Making Obscene Joke

Earl L. Butz, an otherwise popular and successful U.S. secretary of agriculture, was forced to resign after an obscenity-laced, racist, and sexist joke is attributed to him in the national press. He left office in disgrace and later served time in prison for tax evasion.

Summary of Event

Earl L. Butz was born on an Indiana farm and became devoted to a life of farming. His passion extended into his professional life, as he served on many agriculture-related boards and with many interest groups, and he served as the dean of the School of Agriculture at his alma matter, Purdue University. He also was a racist and sexist who brought farm humor to the table. While Butz’s so-called earthy style was normal for the old boys’ network of Washington, D.C., vulgarities and racist remarks would no longer be tolerated in the post-civil-rights era. It was this earthy style—the jokes—that led to his demise. [kw]Butz Resigns After Making Obscene Joke, Agriculture Secretary Earl (Oct. 4, 1976)
Dean, John W.
Boone, Pat
Butz, Earl L.
Ford, Gerald R.
[p]Ford, Gerald R.;and Earl Butz[Butz]
Dean, John W.
Boone, Pat
Butz, Earl L.
Ford, Gerald R.
[p]Ford, Gerald R.;and Earl Butz[Butz]
[g]United States;October 4, 1976: Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz Resigns After Making Obscene Joke[01640]
[c]Racism;October 4, 1976: Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz Resigns After Making Obscene Joke[01640]
[c]Government;October 4, 1976: Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz Resigns After Making Obscene Joke[01640]
[c]Politics;October 4, 1976: Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz Resigns After Making Obscene Joke[01640]
[c]Social issues and reform;October 4, 1976: Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz Resigns After Making Obscene Joke[01640]
[c]Law and the courts;October 4, 1976: Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz Resigns After Making Obscene Joke[01640]

In 1974, Butz was forced to apologize for a public indiscretion that smacked of racism but was overlooked. At the World Food Conference in Rome, Butz mocked Roman Catholic pope Paul VI’s position on abortion with the words “He no play-a the game, he no make-a the rules,” delivered with a mock, Italian-like accent. The fact that he was mocking a culture and the celibacy of a religious leader did not sit well with many, but he was merely forced to make a public apology. Life went on and he would produce even bigger gaffes.

Earl Butz, right.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Butz was not actually a newcomer to Washington, D.C., having first been appointed to the Department of Agriculture by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. Butz was successful because he knew Washington, knew the players, and was very comfortable being himself. This comfort would be his undoing.

Butz was a proponent of changing the ways of agriculture in the United States. He argued that rather than paying farmers not to produce, which kept prices artificially high, agriculture should embrace a free market approach with less government interference. He believed that farmers should grow crops—lots of them. His general theme was to push farmers to grow “fence row to fence row.” This would serve the Butz plan in two ways. First, it would mean lower prices for domestic food, and second, it would lead to surplus crops, which could be sold internationally.

Lower food costs and open foreign markets for export (most notably wheat sales to the Soviet Union;wheat purchases Soviet Union during the Cold War) were two signature marks of the Butz policy, and both seem to have been successful. Food prices lowered, making food relatively inexpensive. In turn, many believe that cheap food led to a rise in obesity rates in the United States. As for opening markets and making money for farmers, the five years under Butz saw farm income increase almost twofold over the previous decade—largely through exports that nearly tripled during his short tenure. Butz was so successful that he received the American Farm Bureau Federation Award for Distinguished Service—an award rarely bestowed upon agricultural secretaries.

The great Butz scandal began while on an airplane leaving from the Republican National Convention in 1976. Butz settled back with a small group that included politically conservative singer Pat Boone and former Richard Nixon staffer John W. Dean. After a few drinks, Butz began telling racist and sexist jokes. He was famous for his one-liners and relished the role of entertainer. At one point he was asked by Boone why African Americans were not associated in large numbers with the Republican Party. Butz’s response was not a surprise. He casually responded that blacks were interested only in shoes, sex, and a place to go to the toilet (his words were actually more descriptive and vulgar). Dean, a former Butz associate, was a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine at the convention. Butz’s comments, attributed to a certain “shirt-sleeved cabinet member,” hit the next issue of Rolling Stone. It did not take a tremendous amount of investigative work to figure out that Butz was the source of the disparaging remarks, given the limited passenger manifest from the airline, which was checked by the media, and his reputation for using such language.

The story was then carried by all of the major news sources and triggered a firestorm, especially among African Americans. Many in the Washington establishment wanted Butz’s head, and he was now clearly a campaign Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Gerald R. Ford[Ford]
Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1976 liability. At a time when President Gerald R. Ford was trying to break from the shadow of Nixon, and Jimmy Carter was doing his best to make a campaign out of moral integrity, Butz provided Carter with ammunition and reminded everyone that the Nixon-Ford administration was largely the same because Ford opted to retain most of Nixon’s cabinet appointees, including Butz. Ford summoned Butz to the White House and immediately chastised and reprimanded him for language that was personally offensive and inexcusable from any member of his cabinet. Butz offered to issue a public apology. This was not enough for many of Ford’s advisers, who suggested that he fire Butz immediately. That was not Ford’s style—he had a certain sense of loyalty to all of his people and did not want to react too quickly. Ultimately, the pressure from advisers, political groups, and his own wife, Betty, would prove to be too much. Butz’s comments were not only racially offensive but also were sexist, which Ford would not tolerate.

Eventually, Ford asked Butz to resign, and Butz did so tearfully on October 4, 1976. Ironically, as Butz was cleaning out his office, he reportedly said that he had told the same basic joke hundreds of times and nobody had ever complained. He still did not understand that times had changed or that he had done anything wrong.

In 1981, Butz was convicted of federal tax Tax evasion;Earl Butz[Butz] evasion and served twenty-five days in jail after being sentenced to five years—all but thirty days were suspended. He pleaded guilty to a charge that he underreported his 1978 income.


The Butz scandal came at a time of change in the way the public tolerated the indiscretions of elected officials. Indeed, the way people interact with one another had changed as well. Butz had believed he was in safe company on the airplane coming back from the Republican National Convention, but there was no longer a “safe” zone for racist and sexist banter. In addition, the scandal showed how political and public pressure in the face of racism and sexism can effectively remove a racist or sexist person from office.

Since the Butz scandal, a number of high-profile celebrities and politicians have fallen from grace because they were insensitive to others and used language that led to their demise. Furthermore, after the scandal, workers began to report inexcusable workplace behavior. This behavior was condemned during the mid-1970’s with the passage of new workplace laws on Sexual harassment;in workplaces[workplaces] sexual harassment. Dean, John W.
Boone, Pat
Butz, Earl L.
Ford, Gerald R.
[p]Ford, Gerald R.;and Earl Butz[Butz]

Further Reading

  • Ashley, Jeffrey S. Betty Ford: A Symbol of Strength. New York: Nova History, 2004. While the text centers primarily on former first lady Betty Ford, it also includes discussion of the Butz scandal, how it damaged reelection hopes for Gerald Ford, and how Betty Ford took a stand in having Earl Butz fired. A common theme in the book is the Ford’s relationship and partnership.
  • Carlson, Michael. “Earl Butz: U.S. Politician Brought Down by Racist Remark.” The Guardian, February 4, 2008. Butz’s obituary in a leading British newspaper of record. Includes the uncensored text of Butz’s racist and sexist remark that led to his resignation in 1976.
  • Ford, Gerald R. A Time to Heal. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. While somewhat dated, this work is unique in that it comes from the source. Ford discusses many of the painful decisions he had to make during his presidency—including the firing of Earl Butz. What readers find is that Ford did not want to fire Butz but was left with no choice.
  • Greene, John Robert. The Presidency of Gerald Ford. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995. A comprehensive examination of the Ford presidency. Included in the text is a brief look at the Butz scandal. Of particular interest is that Ford appears to be much angrier at John Dean for reporting the incident than with Butz for his racism and sexism.

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