To be vulgar once earned societal disapproval, ostracism from polite company and -- in my grandmother's era -- put a young person in danger of having his mouth washed out with soap.
Today, vulgarities are now mainstream. People speaking in a way that "would make a sailor blush" are now on primetime television and words once frowned upon in polite society are now a part of what was once known as cordial conversation.
Last week at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, in the very ballroom where the annual National Prayer Breakfast is held, a previously obscure "comedian" named Michelle Wolf climbed out from under a rock to spew words and personal insults at President Trump, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and top aide Kellyanne Conway, obliterating any remaining standard of conduct and decency. Wolf also made grotesque references to abortion and used words to describe in vulgar terms female genitalia.
You can look up the words. They can't be printed in this newspaper. Doing so, however, might make you feel dirty and insulted, regardless of your political leanings. So vulgar was Wolf that Margaret Talev, president of the correspondents' organization, was forced Sunday night to issue a statement: "Last night's program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people. ... Unfortunately, the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of that mission." Unfortunately? By inviting Wolf, Talev should have expected what she got.
It's difficult to pinpoint when the decline began; when journalists abandoned decorum and aligned themselves with people who practice their craft from the vantage point of the sewer.
I recall the 1996 Radio-Television Correspondents Association dinner. The main speaker was "shock jock" Don Imus. With President Clinton and the first lady sitting there, Imus delivered a series of "jokes" about the president's sexual behavior and Hillary Clinton's legal troubles. While I am no fan of the Clintons, I thought the routine was in poor taste.
The next day I called press secretary Dee Dee Myers and asked her if she agreed, or was I simply old and out of touch. Myers agreed the Imus routine was tasteless.
Insulting the president to his face -- or in this latest instance in absentia, since President Trump wisely avoided the dinner -- has become de rigueur. Where were the feminist voices when Wolf made reference to Sarah Sanders' "smoky eye" and called both she and Conway liars?
Do these correspondents not care what the public thinks of them? Do they have no concern for their low approval ratings and a credibility level that seems to be in freefall? Are they more interested in reinforcing their own political beliefs than projecting a public image of balanced reporting and professional integrity?
People watching the dinner or reading about it must have had their own views of the "liberal media" confirmed. Sanders and Conway should have walked out. I would have laughed if they had taken their water glasses and poured them on Wolf's head as they exited, but they have too much class for that.
Following the 1996 dinner, the head of the TV-Radio Correspondents Association wrote a letter of apology to the Clintons. It's a pretty safe bet there will be no similar letter sent to President Trump or Sanders and Conway. I think it can be safely said that most in the audience and on the dais agree with Wolf, perhaps not with the vulgarities, but certainly the liberal worldview she reflects.
Wolf will now likely crawl back under her rock and after her 15 minutes of fame once again become obscure and deservedly so.
If the White House Correspondents' Dinner continues to embrace the low and the vulgar, it should end. As long as Donald Trump is president, you can bet no one from the White House will ever attend again.
Cal Thomas, America's most-syndicated columnist, is the author of 10 books.