Wednesday, January 13, 2010



New York prepares for an extremely nasty Senate race. For the second time in a decade, an out-of-Stater has taken residence in New York in order to run for Federal office. Eleven years ago, Illinois-born Arkansasan Hillary Clinton bought a house in Westchester County so she could run for Senate. Now, Tennessee native Harold Ford, Jr. has moved to Manhattan in order to battle Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand for her Senate seat.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with out-of-State people moving to New York to run for Senate. It's not like everyone can run for Senate. After all, the American constitutional system is no democracy; as a practical matter, you need to be "part of the club" to run for Senate--the most hallowed clique in the United States. You can't be a plumber from Queens to run for Senate. You can't be a drug dealer or even a university professor with modest savings. No, you need to be in the political elite. You don't need to be an "elite person" from an ethical or moral perspective. You just need to be bred for the job. Generally, that means coming from an extremely wealthy, well-connected family. That's what "elite" means in American political discourse.

Harold Ford meets the criteria. He comes from money. He has served five terms in the United States House of Representatives as a Tennessee delegate. He has sufficient political and economic connections to qualify for Senate membership. In essence, he is "elite." He has the backing and pedigree to join the club.

But unlike Hillary Clinton, Harold Ford's political philosophy does not find an easy home in New York. New York is a famously liberal State. That is why few people had a problem with Hillary Clinton when she waltzed into Westchester to run for Senate. Her political views matched most New Yorkers' views. They elected her by a wide majority, even though some Republicans squawked about "carpetbagging." They thought New York offices should be for New Yorkers, not transplanted former First Ladies from Arkansas.

Harold Ford votes like a southern Republican. New Yorkers like to think that they are nothing like southern Republicans. Yet the same Republicans who complained about Hillary Clinton "carpetbagging" to New York in 2000 now say nothing about Mr. Tennessee.

Who is Harold Ford? New Yorkers should ask that question. They did not have to ask the same question about Hillary Clinton. She was a household name long before her election to the Senate. Everyone knew where she stood on major political issues. Most New Yorkers liked her long before she moved to New York. But what about Ford? Most New Yorkers know nothing about him. He's not even 40. He served ten years in the House. What's so special about that? Unlike Hillary Clinton, he is nothing close to an internationally-recognized celebrity politician.

Ford wrote a brief article yesterday in the New York Post to inform New Yorkers about his candidacy for the Senate. He struggled to deflect early Democratic criticism that he is a "right-wing nut" who opposes abortion and gun control. After all, according to the critics, New Yorkers strongly support both abortion rights and gun control; it would be anomalous if their Senator opposed these things.

I do not know what to think about Ford. I can only speculate based on experience and intuition. Applying my experience, I can say that most representatives from Tennessee would not have their jobs if they supported abortion rights or gun control. Folks from Tennessee don't care much for abortion, and they certainly don't tolerate no Yankees taking away their guns for no thang, no how. Despite Ford's contention that he supports both abortion rights and gun control, I have trouble believing that he could have won five terms in Tennessee with that position. I mean no disrespect to Tennessee when I say that the State is not known for its grand liberalism. That reputation informs my intuition about any politician who serves there.

I know the Civil War has been over for a long time. But former Confederate States are still former Confederate States. Some things survive the generations. Just talk to a drunk Southerner to find out what I mean.

Ford wrote in his article: "I am pro-choice--have always been since I entered politics almost 15 years ago." N.Y. Post, Ford: I'm gearing up for Senate race, Jan. 12, 2010 at 5. But immediately below his article, another blurb disclosed that in 2006 he said to MSNBC's Tucker Carlson: "I'm pro-life, Tucker…I don't run from that." N.Y. Post, Obama elects to stick with Gillibrand, Jan. 12, 2010 at 5.

In lawyer-talk, this is called "impeachment." You're the jury. You decide which statement you want to believe.

No matter what Harold Ford actually thinks about political issues, I insist that he write clear, grammatical English. If someone wants to join America's most elite legislative club, he or she had better know how to write well. Unfortunately, Ford's article reveals that he does not.

First, Ford does not grasp the magical rhetorical art of the semicolon. On terrorism, he says: "Defeating terror isn't a talking point in New York, (sic) it's a way of life." N.Y. Post, Ford: I'm gearing up for Senate Race, Jan. 12, 2010 at 5. Whenever two sentences can stand on their own and they depend on each other for rhetorical effect, commas do not suffice to connect them. Only a semicolon can achieve the desired impact. First-year law students learn this very quickly under pain of academic chastisement. Ford apparently never learned his grammar lesson. He proves it in the next paragraph when he writes: "Rebuilding an economy isn't an item on an issue checklist, (sic) it is what New York does--and must do." Id.

Oops. Same boo boo. Aren't Senators supposed to be rhetorical wizards? This guy doesn't even get his grammar right.

But Ford's grammatical woes do not end with semicolons. He also has a problem with run-on sentences. Try this one on for size: "And New Yorkers want an honest and serious debate about how to grow our economy, create new jobs downstate and upstate and keep New York state (sic) and our country safe." Id.

Whew! Talk about trying to cram too many ideas into a single breath. Let's try to unpack this linguistic crate: Ford thinks that New Yorkers want honest debate about the economy, jobs and safety. He also thinks they want serious debate on the same subjects. He further thinks New Yorkers want both "honest and serious" debate about those issues from an upstate/downstate perspective, not to mention a State/Federal perspective. That 's a lot of debate from a lot of perspectives. It took me a good four sentences to mention all the ideas he squeezed into one. Needless to say, you can't effectively communicate so many things in one line. Multiple adjectives and conjunctions do not make the reader's job any easier.

Some will inevitably label me petty for criticizing Ford's grammar. After all, we all make grammatical blunders from time to time. But I respond that anyone who wants to be a United States Senator must adhere to a higher linguistic standard. I could forgive a college freshman's incessant run-ons and semicolon misuse. But I can't forgive the same foibles in a man who wants to join America's most elite legislative club.

On the other hand, perhaps I demand too much. Ford fits the bill for membership in the Senate. He's wealthy, he comes from a political family, he has connections and he has powerful friends. He comes from the right social class to get in the door. Sadly, that's all you really need to hold high office in the United States. If you happen to be intelligent and eloquent, that's great; but it's not required. In this sense, we see once again that America is neither a democracy nor an aristocracy.

In the original constitutional understanding, the Senate was supposed to be America's "aristocrats' club." It was supposed to comprise the "excellent" people from across the land. Yet as Ford's case shows, Senators need not be intellectually "excellent." They need only fit the property and pedigree requirements for membership. Quality is irrelevant.

I wish quality were more relevant in American government. The word "aristocracy" has a dirty meaning in American discourse because Americans allegedly believe that everyone is equal. They also associate "aristocracy" with the arrogant British nobility that led the colonies to revolt from England.

But in the Aristotelean sense, it is no insult to call someone an "aristocrat." To the contrary, it is the best thing a politician can be. A true "aristocrat" is a person with naturally excellent moral, intellectual and ethical characteristics. Aristocracy implies inequality; not everyone can be "excellent." Yet this is not a bad thing, because it is only prudent that "naturally excellent, unselfish" people rule the State.

Ford's case shows that American Senators are not aristocrats. They are oligarchs. Oligarchy means rule by a few, irrespective of personal excellence. To be a Senator, you don't need to be excellent. You just need to be part of the "few" who are eligible for the job. In that sense, it is incorrect to call Senators "aristocrats." If they were truly aristocrats, there would never be any scandal, corruption or acrimony in the Senate. But a quick glance at congressional history reveals that scandal is the rule, not the exception.

Instead, we have an oligarchy. Oligarchs don't need to be excellent. Far from it: They don't even need to know how to use semicolons.

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