By Steve Rodriguez
President Donald Trump’s contempt for reading and writing lengthy texts has long been suspected. However, the presidential news briefing on April 4 went especially far in demonstrating our chief executive’s ignorance of the role written correspondence plays in any large organization.
Trump went out of his way to ridicule Capt. Brett Crozier’s attempt to save the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt from the spread of COVID-19. What I found striking was not just Trump’s ridiculing of the captain’s argument, but his bizarre effort to mock Crozier’s letter as “literature.”
Crozier created a firestorm of controversy with his four-page letter on March 30 detailing the need for action on the part of the Navy. The subsequent public release of the letter by the San Francisco Chronicle resulted in a wild chain of events, including Crozier’s removal as commander by acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, the taking up of sides by Americans who pictured Crozier as either a hero or a panicked drama queen, and eventually the resignation of Modly after he delivered a profanity-laced tirade to the crew of the San Diego-based aircraft carrier.
Lost in all the hoopla, however, was the oddest part of the controversy—President Trump’s assessment of Crozier’s letter. In his news briefing, Trump mocked Crozier’s written plea for assistance by saying, “I thought it was terrible what he did, write a letter.” Trump then complained, “This isn’t a class on literature.”
As both a retired military officer and a retired English teacher I found Trump’s reason for ridiculing Crozier’s letter as absurd. Trump’s choice of words exposed his astoundingly naive misunderstanding of the role written correspondence plays in any large organization, and perhaps as well a related desire to play to his base.
In mocking Crozier’s choice of communication by deriding it as “literature,” one has to make the following three disturbing conclusions about President Trump:
1. He has no clue that military officers regularly communicate via different styles of written text, depending on the type of command or assignment. These styles can range from a point paper to a policy memorandum, from a technical manual to an operations order. The texts are often brief and concise, but can be lengthy and complex. They can be informational, directive, or persuasive in nature. With rare exception, one cannot rise through the military ranks without the ability to write, such is the military’s reliance on effective written communication.
2. He considers any form of written communication longer than a tweet as highbrow literature, indistinguishable from a book of fiction or a poem, and therefore inappropriate for a military environment. In doing so, he views anything beyond Twitter’s 280-character limit as something better suited to the classroom or, attempting to attain an even higher level of silliness, he reflexively aims to negatively cast “literature” as reading material belonging exclusively to the intellectual elites he and his base so often scorn.
3. He still doesn’t understand the role of written communication in a large organization. Though he may have successfully avoided written communication while in charge of his family business, someone who has served as president of the United States for over three years should be accustomed to reading a four-page text and understand its purpose and relevance, while still possibly disagreeing with the text’s argument. He should not be surprised that a person who holds the important job of aircraft carrier commander relies on written communication to present an argument dealing with a life-and-death situation.
While assigned at a high school serving many Navy dependents, I greatly enjoyed teaching my advanced placement English literature students the works of such luminaries as Kafka, Vonnegut, Conrad and Salinger. These students learned how authors cleverly employed literary devices and creatively explored universal themes to produce memorable literary works.
But in my regular English classes, I used shorter non-fiction texts to better convey the nuances of reading and writing. My students learned to first identify the purpose of a text along with its intended audience, and to then look for certain structural arrangements and determine how different rhetorical appeals and devices were used. In getting attuned to these characteristics, they learned that news articles, essays, business memoranda, and editorials were not just slabs of indistinguishable paragraphs, but functional works following certain patterns and all carefully crafted to make an argument.
I sometimes related to them how my job as a staff officer in the Marine Corps frequently involved writing expository texts. I emphasized the point that writing was a common practice in any large organization, and that someday they too might find themselves in a job where they routinely used reading and writing skills to get the job done.
Looking back, I like to think my students would have read Captain Crozier’s letter and quickly determined its purpose and argument without misinterpreting it as a fanciful attempt at literature. Surely, they would have picked out the structural and rhetorical characteristics of Crozier’s plea and known enough to avoid mocking it as too highbrow. My students were only 17 or 18 years old, but old enough to know the role written correspondence plays in a work environment.
Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.
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