Class Notes

Christie and Obama’s Romantic Plot

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The appeal of enemies who become friends

By Paula Marantz Cohen


Many of us like nothing more than a good romantic plot in which two people, after navigating a series of obstacles, come together—even better if it involves a misunderstanding or clash of interests that keeps the couple from recognizing their affinity until a revelation finally brings them together.

Antipathy yielding to love is central to my favorite movies and novels. I am thinking specifically of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, and, antecedent to them, the domestic novels of the late-18th and 19th centuries, of which Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the greatest and purest example. I have yet to find a young person who isn’t susceptible to the plot. My students may find the language cumbersome and the details of daily life dated, but they love the arc of the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Even my male students, who pretend to be immune to romance, keep reading because they want to see this sparring couple united at the end.

Given the appeal of this story is there any wonder why everyone, young and old (with the exception of certain curmudgeonly political diehards) were charmed by the story we saw enacted recently between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Barack Obama?

Only a few weeks earlier, Christie had scorned Obama for his weakness as a leader, while Obama stood aloof in his slim, professorial persona—a physical and temperamental opposite to the beefy, boisterous Christie. But Darcy was initially put off by the vulgarity of Bennet’s family, and she had to learn that a man who doesn’t say what you want to hear can be wiser and more reliable in a crisis than a silver-tongued Wickham (e.g. a presidential nominee who wanted to abolish FEMA).

When Obama and Christie stood next to each other at a press conference soon after Hurricane Sandy had devastated the Jersey shore—the slender and the rotund, the refined and the profane, each extolling the other—many of us felt the way we did at the end of Austen’s novel. Christie called Obama’s leadership “outstanding”; Obama put his hand on Christie’s back in a supportive gesture. The former enemies had become admirers.

Now that Obama has won the presidency, Christie’s behavior may seem like a shrewd political move, and Obama’s responsiveness may seem calculated to show off his crisis-management skills at an important juncture in the campaign. In a recent appearance on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart pushed Christie to explain his feelings about Obama and, in the process, to qualify them substantially. But even if the clinch doesn’t lead to marriage, whatever stands behind the governor and the president’s romantic plot should be applauded. We need more bipartisan love stories, even fleeting ones, in this fraught political climate. If only the president and the speaker of the House could pick up the plot. And if it means putting Jane Austen into the political playbook, I’m all for it.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.

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