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A Very Unscientific Inquiry Into the Etymology of the Phrase ‘Iron-Ass’

A theory on where former President George H.W. Bush discovered the phrase "iron-ass."


Excerpts of Jon Meacham’s biography of former President George H.W. Bush, set to arrive in bookstores next week, hit newspapers Thursday. One such reading contained a curious phrase — “iron-ass” — which the 41st president used a number of times to describe officials in the later administration of his son, former President George W. Bush.

According to the New York Times, Meacham writes that George H.W. Bush considered former Vice President Dick Cheney an “iron-ass.” Cheney’s wife, Lynne, is also an “iron-ass.” Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, has an “iron-ass view of everything” and “served the president badly.”

None of us here at The Cable had ever before heard the phrase “iron-ass.” That got us thinking: Where did it come from?

First, some context. A reading of Meacham’s excerpt could lend both good and bad connotations to “iron-ass” in the post-9/11 White House. In Lynne Cheney’s case, it’s a positive: Bush describes her as “the eminence grise here — iron-ass, tough as nails, driving.” In the other two cases, however, it appears to be a negative. When talking about Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld, his use of “iron-ass” implies overconfidence and chestiness. “Iron-ass” could easily be substituted with hard-ass, which in turn might imply overconfidence that the war in Iraq would be easily won. It wasn’t.

To find out more, The Cable conducted a very unscientific study using one of the most sophisticated search tools available to us here at Foreign Policy: Google. And the results are somewhat fascinating and at least provide a logical explanation for Bush’s use of “iron-ass.”

The first use of the phrase we found described Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, who commanded the U.S. Army Air Forces (a precursor to the U.S. Air Force, established in 1947) B-17 Flying Fortress unit, a role in which he oversaw bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific.

According to Kennedy Hickman, a military expert who has worked at the U.S. Military History Institute, LeMay constantly drilled his troops to save lives in the air. This earned their respect, and they gave LeMay the nickname “Iron Ass.”

Fast forward about 30 years and “iron-ass” pops up again. This time, it’s in reference to former President Richard Nixon. A 1971 issue of the New York Review of Books refers to Tricky Dick’s “cast-iron ass,” which he used to “outstudy his fellow students and graduate with distinction in order to apply for a job as a G-man. He was turned down.” According to Newsweek, Nixon earned a similar nickname, “Iron Butt,” while in law school.

Two years later, in 1973, New York magazine used the phrase “iron ass” to describe the posterior of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state. According to the article, Kissinger logged 265,000 miles in Air Force jets in 1972, a testament to both his “stolidity and iron ass.

Final verdict? It’s possible the elder Bush, who served as a pilot during World War II, could have picked up “iron-ass” from his flyboy colleagues (though we couldn’t find any evidence Bush served directly under LeMay). If you have any information on where the term comes from, email us and we’ll update. America needs to know.

Photo credit: Shawn Thew/Getty Images

Correction, Nov. 5, 2015: Lynne Cheney, who George H.W. Bush called an “iron-ass,” is Dick Cheney’s wife. A previous version of this article said she was his daughter.