A Tense Change

It was so subtle, yet so powerful to those who noticed. Jimmy Carter’s eulogy for Gerald Ford was as emotionally moving and as personally touching as they come, and the craftsmanship of that short speech was impeccable.“For myself and for our nation I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.” Without preamble, those words opened Mr. Carter’s eulogy for his friend, Gerald Ford.Those words were, as he then went on to explain, the ones he had used to open his inaugural address after his election to the Presidency–one in which he, the Democrat, narrowly defeated Gerald Ford, the Republican–for that office 30 years ago.Ford assumed the presidency after Richard Nixon had left that office in disgrace, and the nation in bitter turmoil. Ford stepped in, and the healing began, thanks to his wisdom and generosity of spirit in pardoning Nixon, an act that was highly criticized by many at the time. History fairly quickly proved Ford had made the right choice.At first, not knowing that this was a quote from an earlier time, I flinched at the tense Mr. Carter used in his thanks to Ford for what he “has done.”

For the grammatically astute, that tense is called the ‘present perfect’ and is used to describe an action with its beginning in the past, and not yet with a definitive end. It’s used to indicate that the action is on-going in the present–or has the potential to be that–so, in this case it would imply that Ford could go on doing things to heal the nation. And perhaps, in death, he could still do that somehow, but it seemed a bit unlikely.

People who are dead are referred to in the past tense–because they are no longer living and no longer capable of action, at least as we commonly know it. So, in this case of Mr. Carter’s opening line, ‘did’ would normally have been used in place of ‘has done,’ in reference to the healing brought about by Mr. Ford.

And then, Mr. Carter explained that those opening words were a quote from his inaugural speech 30 years ago, and that explained the odd-seeming tense to me. Perhaps I was the only one who noticed it.

Mr. Carter went on to shed light on a friendship between himself and Mr. Ford that had grown and deepened over the years following that inaugural speech from which Mr. Carter had just quoted. One good common man recognizing and applauding another. And, it seems they made a pact some time ago in which each agreed to deliver a eulogy for the other, depending on which one died first. Obviously, the task, and the honor, fell to Mr. Carter.

It was then at the end of his poignant and heartfelt eulogy that Mr. Carter went back to again use those words he had used to open both his inaugural address and his eulogy of Gerald Ford. He had trouble composing himself to finish the last part of that line–the part where he thanks Mr. Ford for healing the land.

“For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he did to heal our land.” The past tense now, and no longer the present perfect.

I knew instantly that he had made a deliberate and most telling tense change in those last few words–and perhaps that was one reason he found it so hard to deliver them. It was what that tense change signified about his friend.

Well done, Mr. Carter. The craftsmanship of your speech, along with its warmth, sincerity, and most significant tense change, will forever stay in the minds of us who notice meaningful subtleties. Thank you.

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