New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who called a Democratic state senator an “arrogant S.O.B.” this week, joins a distinguished and bipartisan line of politicians who have employed the term. It may help him too.
The “S.O.B.” line is the latest in a series of insults the Republican governor has leveled at critics. He’s called them a “joke,” a “jerk,” an “idiot,” “numbnuts” and a “handmaiden” for the Democrats.
He’s doing it because it works, said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public-policy organization in Washington.
“It’s now part of his M.O.,” Mann said of Christie’s propensity for profanity. “It’s part of the Christie brand, which means to speak with great authority, confidence and aggressiveness at anyone who seems to be in his way. Thus far, it’s probably helped him with the public.”
In a town hall meeting yesterday in Mahwah, Christie, 49, defended his use of coarse language.
“You may not agree with me all the time, but you never have to wonder what I’m saying,” he said. “I’m pretty clear and I’m pretty direct. Some people agree with that, and some people don’t. I’m not looking to win a popularity contest, and you didn’t elect me prom king. You elected me governor.”
Christie, who turned down requests to run for president this year, has acted as a surrogate for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, didn’t respond to a request for comment on how Christie’s demeanor compares with the more buttoned-up image projected by the former Massachusetts governor.
Amanda De Palma, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Republican Party, didn’t respond to a request for an interview with its chairman, Saddle River Mayor Samuel S. Raia.
Christie’s aggressiveness hasn’t harmed the Republican image because such behavior has become so common that it’s no longer exceptional, said Mann.
Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of etiquette author Emily Post, said potty-mouthed politicians should set a better example.
“Intelligent people have a choice of words, so use your options,” she said. “It’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to civility, and it doesn’t matter who’s saying it. There is no scenario in which I see that kind of language being merited or being useful.”
Political leaders have still found it handy. With his latest comment, Christie placed himself in the company of former Presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
For Nixon, “son of a bitch” was the pejorative of choice for the gunman who attempted to assassinate Alabama Governor George C. Wallace in the early 1970s. Johnson added “commie” before it in 1967 to describe Andreas George Papandreou, Greece’s first socialist prime minister, and Harry Truman added the adjective “dumb” for General Douglas MacArthur, whom he’d fired as supreme commander in Korea. Kennedy in 1962 made it plural to reference the Russians.
John Tomicki, executive director of the League of American Families, a faith-based conservative group representing 100,000 households in New Jersey, said he doesn’t want Christie’s conduct to distract from his accomplishments.
Tone It Down
“I’m sure he regrets it and that doesn’t excuse it, but we all make mistakes,” he said. “At least his policies are going in the right direction.”
Tomicki said he met with one of Christie’s predecessors who used particularly egregious language while in office and asked him to tone it down. Christie hasn’t come close to that level yet, he said.
Christie, who took office in 2010, employed the “S.O.B.” term June 26 at a public meeting in Brick Township to describe Senator Paul Sarlo, a Wood-Ridge Democrat who heads the state Legislature’s budget panel. The governor’s remarks followed a delay by Democrats, who control the statehouse in Trenton, of a tax cut in the $31.7 billion budget they sent him.
Having the governor call you names has become a “badge of honor,” Sarlo said in a statement. He said he wouldn’t resort to name-calling in response.
The etymology of Christie’s latest slur is clear, said Larry Mitchell, a professor of English at Texas A&M University in College Station who collects slang and dialect dictionaries dating back to the 18th century.
In “A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English,” author Eric Partridge dated the first printed appearance of “son of a bitch” to 1712 in “The Triumph of Wit.” It probably existed well before that, Mitchell said.
He also found other iterations of insults beginning with “son.” They include “son of prattlement,” for a lawyer and the familiar “son of a gun,” which the “Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant” from 1897 labels “an epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree.”
Contempt has become a political tool for New Jersey’s governor.
Democratic U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg says he’s collected thousands of signatures for a petition telling Christie that voters are sick of “childish name-calling,” the senator said in an e-mail. “Governance is about dialogue, not diatribes.”
Profanity suggests arrogance, said Post, who is a spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vermont.
“Whenever anyone resorts to being crass or shocking like that, it’s usually because it’s the only way they can get a reaction,” she said. “We can get so emotional about politics, and that’s why it’s even more important to express ourselves properly. Smart politicians know how to do that well.”