President Barack Obama made headlines Monday for using the n-word while describing how far the U.S. still has to go to tackle racism. Speaking on comedian Mark Maron’s WTF podcast, the president said:

“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say n***** in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

Of course, as the nation’s first black president, Obama has an unprecedented license to use the n-word in such situations. He was talking publicly about the nation’s history of racism, not using the slur behind closed doors to denigrate his fellow African-Americans. But many of the white men who preceded him in office used the n-word in private, history shows. In their cases, the context was invariably ugly.

President Richard Nixon

African-American Journalist Ethel Payne entertaining then-Vice President Richard Nixon in her Washington home in 1958. From the recently published "Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press."

African-American Journalist Ethel Payne entertaining then-Vice President Richard Nixon in her Washington home in 1958. From the recently published “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press.”

Nixon didn’t limit his racism to African-Americans: he was recorded making anti-Semitic remarks, insulting Italians, Irish and others. Still, his comments about black people would have caused outrage had they been known at the time. As Kenneth O’Reilly reported in a 1995 book, for example, after his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger commented on the favorable press Secretary of State William Rogers received for a trip to Africa, Nixon was recorded responding:

 ”Let’s leave the n*****s to Bill and we’ll take care of the rest of the world.”

President Lyndon Baines Johnson

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the White House Cabinet Room | Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the White House Cabinet Room | Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

Johnson pushed through landmark civil rights legislation, and often spoke movingly of the plight of black America. In private, though, he could be shockingly racist. For example, according to biographer Robert Dallek, when Johnson appointed the well-known Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, he told a young attorney that he had passed over a potentially better-qualified but obscure African-American candidate for the job because:

“Son, when I appoint a n***** to the court, I want everyone to know he’s a n*****.”

And biographer Robert Caro wrote in 2002 that Johnson once told a chauffeur:

“As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, n******, you just let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.”

While those accounts are based on interviews, Johnson’s used of the slur elsewhere is documented on tape.

President Harry Truman

President Truman receives a ticket for a 1952 heavyweight title fight from cmahp Jersey Joe Walcott | Sun-Times file photo)

President Truman receives a ticket for a 1952 heavyweight title fight from champ Jersey Joe Walcott | (AP file photo)

Later in life, Truman openly used the n-word and anti-Semitic slurs in conversation with his biographer. As a young man, he in 1911 wrote a racist letter to his future wife, telling her:

“I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a n***** or a Chinaman. Uncle Wills says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a n***** from mud, and then threw what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.”

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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

FDR meeting with a an African-American Navy cook in 1942

FDR meeting with a an African-American Navy cook in 1942

FDR’s record on race was most visibly damaged by his internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But biographers have also detailed his casual racism toward African-Americans. As Geoffrey Ward wrote in his 1989 biography of FDR:

As a young man, Franklin used the word “n*****” privately without embarrassment, just as his father had when young. His handwritten caption for one of the snapshots he made at St. Thomas on his 1904 Caribbean cruise reads: “N*****s coaling the PVL” and the margin of a 1911 speech contains a crisp penciled reminder to himself: “story of a n*****.”

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

An apologist for Southern racism, Wilson had a rotten record on race. As president of Princeton University, he wrote, “The whole temper and tradition of the place [Princeton] are such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems unlikely that the question will ever assume practical form.”

In a letter he wrote to a friend in 1901, he described an article he was wrote for Harper’s magazine in which he supported the Jim Crow policies of the  South in the aftermath of reconstruction. He wrote:

“I am working away ‘like a n*****’ on the History now appearing in the Harper’s, and have scarcely time to breathe, so fearful is the rate at which the inexorable press is gaining on me. But I have time to think of you with all affection.”