Tag Archives: political rhetoric

Offensive and Random Discharges

If traditional rhetoric has rules and assumed courtesies, a verbal spew just happens.  Rhetoric is the product of adaptation and thought.  But spew never passes near the centers of intelligence.

I had a classmate who could empty the contents of his stomach on cue.  On a moment’s notice he could produce  a gross  barrage of undigested material that was never meant to pass a person’s lips. It didn’t matter that this childish gesture could be inconvenient to demonstrate on your mother’s new living room carpet. He didn’t have much sense about when to pick his moment. It was part of the unfortunate grade school freak-show that he had perfected.

This chunky kid was one of several characters at my hardscrabble school located a few blocks from runway 17R at Denver’s old Stapleton Airport. Planes would scream over all day. if the noise or cement playground didn’t nick you up, there were classmates who could do the trick. Happily, most later re-joined the human race in high school.

This kid reminds me of the President. I think of Donald Trump as just a larger hulk of gracelessness: a screamer of sorts, to be sure, but mostly a person who disgorges undigested gut reactions with no apparent shame.  Had he known him, Mark Twain would have gladly written about this curious figure, bloated by self importance and clueless about the rules of civil discourse. I suspect Twain would have tired of him, preferring his presence to be confined to the pages of his satire on manners.

All of this is made worse, of course, by others who work for Trump or his party. Like many unsteady grade-schoolers, they pretend not to notice  bully who could turn on them.

Our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse.

My memory of this kid came to mind a few months back after seeing one of many tweeted insults from the President, this one referring to “a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with. . .”  Never mind that Haberman knows how to use language with precision, and that she shares a Pulitzer Prize in Reporting with several of her colleagues at the New York Times. By his standards, this was hardly the worst of nearly 600  insults that have come from the President since taking office.  But the ad hominem attacks continue to pile up. Against Trump, no insult comic could ever stand a chance.

Traditional rhetoric has rules.  Verbal spew just happens.  Effective public rhetoric is the product of careful adaptation and thought, even when coming from people we might otherwise disagree with.  In every case we have a right to expect a speaker has has at least some capacity to measure the effects of their words.

The presence of this continual vitriol has softened us.  We’ve grown accustomed to graceless verbal gestures.  Indeed, Twitter has perfected them.  We are getting used to putting our nation’s presidency alongside the trolls and dystopians who populate the fringes of the internet. It means our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse. And like adolescents trying to fit in, we mostly marvel to the spectacle in silence, knowing that the nation’s chief executive seems incapable of much more than mimicking the kind of coarseness not seen since our days in grade school.

The All Purpose Advocate

                           Speaker John Bercow

All things considered, it hasn’t gone well for Prime Minister Theresa May, her party, the Labour Party and the other smaller factions in the Mother of Parliaments.  The stunner is how well the Speaker has managed the chaos.  

Anyone spending time listening to the President and others in the current American stalemate might wonder what has happened to fluent advocacy.  The President’s impoverished lexicon leaves him ill-prepared to make coherent arguments for policies.  He clings to one comfortable idea that he understands: a wall. It has the virtue of being a thing rather than an idea. In his one-note campaign he seems to have missed the irony of arguing in favor of one of the crudest tools in any government’s arsenal: a symbol of political failure that even Ronald Reagan understood when he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to get rid of Berlin’s concrete barrier. A wall was perhaps a more appropriate military weapon in the 14th Century than it is now.

Eloquent and forceful advocacy is not dead. But Washington D.C. is no longer one of its natural homes.

Because I teach advocacy, my courses these days come with a caution to my students to aim higher than the rhetoric coming from the White House and other corners of Washington.  Eloquent and forceful advocacy is not dead. But Washington D.C. is no longer one of its natural homes.  When “bye bye” is the President’s way of ending negotiations with other political leaders, we hear yet again a rhetoric of petulance that is more appropriate to a child than a leader of a great nation.

A far better model is on view almost daily in the form of the current Speaker of Britain’s House of Commons.  I’ve been on a busman’s holiday recently following the often dismal Brexit debate unfolding in London. The tense standoff involving elected members to the Mother of Parliaments has been managed by John Bercow, whose job it is to bring order to a body that is always rowdy. The 55-year old former Conservative, the grandson of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, has been a formidable and sometimes controversial Speaker, lecturing members on their behavior and keeping the House more or less on schedule.  He is also a marvel of fluency.

In the current climate of U.K. politics there are even more daily eruptions than usual in the compact chamber, mostly motivated by opposition to the Prime Minister’s plans for carrying out a divorce from the European Union. All things considered, it hasn’t gone well for Prime Minister Theresa May, her party, the Labour Party and other smaller factions in the body.  Yet, the stunner is how well Bercow has managed the chaos.

Bercow has created some additional fury from the Tories in power, who claim that he is playing favorites in the ways he has adjudicated various amendments and procedures. Even so, if I were asked to give a student an immersion experience in hearing eloquent advocacy, I’d give them at least several hours of material showing Bercow presiding over debates in the Commons. He listens with precision and grace. And his answers and explanations to doubting members show a number of attributes of effective advocacy.  He’s responsive, courteous, patient, forceful, and rarely at a loss in finding exactly the right words.  He also seems to know the names and biographies of most of the body’s 650 members.

Here’s a sample of Bercow in the thick of it.

Recently he declined a member’s “point of order” asking the Leader of the Opposition to apologize for allegedly muttering the phrase “stupid woman” made after comments from Theresa May. The rules of most deliberative bodies do not allow personal attacks on members.  But Bercow said that neither he nor his deputies heard the comment. His unpopular decision left him with the difficult task of making a case for not ruling on a possible verbal slight against May, even in the midst of the #MeToo era. If this is not Bercow’s finest hour, his efforts still illustrate how a master advocate articulates a position in the face of fierce resistance.

MPs call on Bercow to discipline Corbyn after ‘mouthing stupid woman’

Today marks only a hundred days to go before Britain finally pulls the trigger and exits the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May takes questions in parliament. SCHEDULE: 0930GMT – Exiting the European Union Committee 1200GMT – Prime Minister’s Questions begins Read more…