Thursday, July 2, 2015

Christie Speechwriter Soft on English and History

I was driving back from Manhattan Tuesday when WNYC public radio broke away from The Brian Lehrer Show to broadcast New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s presidential campaign kickoff speech. He’s a dynamic speaker. Coupled with my interest in politics, I chose to listen. 

It was a strong presentation full of broad bromides about what Christie would accomplish, not unlike any of the other announcements by Republican would-be presidents. They are long on generalities, short on specifics. They’re all (except Rand Paul) for a more muscular military ready to be deployed wherever necessary, as in Christie’s words, “And it is a strong, unequivocal, America, that will lead the world and not be afraid to tell our friends we’ll be with you no matter what. And to tell our adversaries that there are limits to your conduct and America will enforce the limits to that conduct.”

They’re also for less government regulation and a more vigorous economy, ignoring the fact that compared with what he inherited from the last Republican administration President Obama’s tenure has enjoyed a resurgence in jobs, the stock market and reduced national debt.

But I was truly amused by three parts of Christie’s monologue. First, I smiled when he discussed the need for a revised tax system. “We need a tax system that’s simplified and will put CPA’s like my dad out of business,” he told an adoring crowd in the Livingston, NJ, High School gym. But in the transcript of his speech, the wording was more than slightly different—“We need a tax system that’s simplified and won’t (my italics) put CPA’s like my dad out of business.”

Then there was the matter of Christie’s bemoaning lower education achievements. Perhaps, as Shakespeare had Cassius tell Brutus in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” You see, I have a fondness for the proper usage of the English language. One of my pet peeves is using “I” when “me” is the correct object of a verb or preposition. Thus, when Christie said of his parents, “They raised my brother and I …” it was an assault on my eardrums. Not only did Christie not know “me” was called for, but his speechwriter(s) also showed a lack of English smarts. 

Now, some of you might be thinking I am being too much of a grammar stickler. Could be. But I, for one, want a president who speaks proper English. (As an aside, my grandniece from London, all of four years old, told my sister-in-law, “Grandma, you speak American, I speak English.” Yeah, but the rules of grammar span the Atlantic.)

Christie’s speech overreached in another arena. He properly lamented the dysfunction in Washington. “Both parties have failed our country. Both parties have stood in the corner and held their breath and waited to get their own way. And both parties have lead (sic—I can’t tell you how many time the speechwriters used “lead” when they should have written “led”) us to believe that in America, a country that was built on compromise, that somehow now compromise is a dirty word. If Washington and Adams and Jefferson believed compromise was a dirty word, we’d still be under the crown of England,” he said.

Excuse me, but if that trio, along with the rest of the Founding Fathers and patriots, had sought compromise instead of revolution, we would not have fought a war of independence from Britain, though perhaps we’d be better at speaking the Queen’s English. 

Christie was somewhat right in that compromise eight years after the war ended enabled the 13 former colonies to adapt the Articles of Confederation into a constitutional republic form of government. However, he and his conservative cohorts cleave to a static reading of the Constitution, ignoring societal changes that should imbue our interpretation of the document.

By coincidence, The New York Times reviewed a new book by Joseph J. Ellis on Monday, The Quartet, Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 (

Ascribing the successful effort of the Constitutional Convention to Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, Ellis, in the words of the reviewer, believed “what the founders did not want was to be embalmed, or to have their prescriptions taken as sacred script.” 

To support his analysis, according to the reviewer, Ellis ended his book quoting Jefferson: “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I know that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country ...

“But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.”

During a week when the U.S. Supreme Court upended some long-held beliefs, leading some Republicans to question its continued validity, we would do well to reflect on Jefferson’s words.