All the President's Men

Ratfucking is an American slang term for political sabotage or dirty tricks. It was brought to public attention by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their non-fiction book ‘All the President’s Men’ (1974).

Woodward and Bernstein’s exposé reports that many staffers who had attended the University of Southern California (‘USC’)—such as Donald Segretti, White House aide Tim Elbourne, Ronald Louis Ziegler, H. R. Haldeman, and Dwight Chapin—had participated in the highly competitive student elections there.

UPI reporter Karlyn Barker sent Woodward and Bernstein a memo, ‘Notes On the USC Crowd,’ that outlined the connection. Fraternities, sororities, and underground fraternal coordinating organizations—such as Theta Nu Epsilon and their splintered rival ‘Trojans for Representative Government’—engaged in creative tricks and underhanded tactics to win student elections. Officially, control over minor funding and decision-making on campus life was at stake, but the positions also gave bragging rights and prestige. The tactics were either promoted by or garnered the interest of major political figures on the USC board of trustees, such as Dean Rusk and John A. McCone. It was here that the term ‘ratfucking’ had its origin.

The term received media attention in Australia after it was reported that the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd used it in a tirade about China at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. During the 2016 Republican Party presidential primaries, candidate Ted Cruz said ‘Trump may be a rat, but I have no desire to copulate with him,’ a euphemized reference to the term. In 2017, journalist Marcy Wheeler garnered the disapprobation of the Federal Communications Commission when she used the term in a radio broadcast. Wheeler maintained that the word has become a term of art in political science and is thus not an obscenity; FCC officials disagreed.

A more benign use of the term ‘ratfucking’ was commonplace in Southern California (and possibly other) college slang from the late 1950s to at least the early 1960s, meaning a prank. Around that time, Tony Auth was the cartoonist for the UCLA Daily Bruin. One of his cartoons showed a large, inebriated rat suggesting to another rat, ‘Let’s go PF-ing tonight!,’ a play on ratfucking or ‘RF-ing.’ The lead story in the January 6, 1961, ‘California Tech,’ Caltech’s student newspaper, was headlined, ‘Tech Scores First Televised RF.’ The article chronicled the ‘Great Rose Bowl Hoax,’ which had just taken place (cheerleaders for the Washington Huskies were tricked into spelling out CALTECH at the Rose Bowl championship game). A political context was irrelevant to such usage. At the end of the article, an Editor’s Note both explained and bowdlerized: ‘RF (for Royal Flush) is a contemporary college colloquialism for a clever prank.’

The term ‘ratfucking’ (‘rat’ in this case is shorthand for ‘ration’) is also a slang term used by U.S. military personnel to mean the targeted pillaging of MREs (Meals, Ready-To-Eat), which the U.S. military calls ‘field stripping.’ It refers to the process of opening a case of MREs, which are packed 12 in a box, opening up individual MRE packages, removing the desired items (generally M&M’s and other sweets), and leaving the unenticing remainder.

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