Monday, December 05, 2005

The Means of Persuasion
Last night and this morning, I read the rest of Ronald C. White, Jr.'s The Eloquent President, the book I mentioned yesterday, with the assertion in mind from the right-wing blog Powerline that the rhetorical skills of He Who Shall Not Be Named are unequaled by any American president since Lincoln. Comparing Bush with Lincoln in any manner gets you nowhere with me to begin with--I still want to gag every time I think of that post 9/11 poll that ranked Bush third on the list of greatest presidents behind Washington and Lincoln--but I think I can keep the bile down long enough to examine precisely why an an attempt to equate the two rhetorically is foolish.

In The Eloquent President, White uses the principles of Aristotle, as set down in his Treatise on Rhetoric, to analyze Lincoln's artistry as a writer and speaker. White writes that Aristotle described three modes of persuasion "furnished by the spoken word":
First, "persuasion is achieved by means of moral character, when the speech shall have been spoken in such a way as to render the speaker worthy of confidence." Aristotle argued that ethos, or credibility, was the most powerful means of persuasion. Personal character and the spoken word are inseparable.
People who support this president see that necessary strength of moral character that gives his words credibility. As near as I can tell, that character is demonstrated to them mostly through the following: A) he claims a strong belief in God; B) once he takes a position he doesn't shift from it, no matter what; and C) he has received no blowjobs from White House interns. Those who oppose him see other signs of his moral character, chief among them his willingness to engage in actions inimical to what many see as morally right: lying, making war on civilians, looting of the public treasury--or a lack of simple empathy with those unlike himself. Which leads us quite conveniently to Aristotle's next mode:
Second, "persuasion may come through the hearers, when they have been brought to a state of excitement under the influence of the speech." Aristotle, in his explanation of this principle, points to the effective speaker's ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of the audience to whom he is speaking.
People who support this president get this president. Whether it's his frontier-sheriff squint, his coded religious language, or his appeals to abstracts such as freedom and democracy, this president is able to indeed move hearers to a state of excitement under the influence of his speeches. (Powerline's fawning over the recent Iraq speech and past presidential messages is Exhibit A.) The problem is that it's the same hearers who are moved every time. Hearers who oppose him are unmoved by him, precisely because he seems unable to understand their thoughts and feelings--to see the world from where they stand and to respond to their concerns. To a certain extent, Lincoln had this problem as well: Some of his political opponents claimed to be unmoved by even the greatest examples of his rhetoric. However, as White demonstrates, Lincoln's rhetoric evolved throughout his presidency. He kept working toward increasingly effective ways to make his cases, and his attempts to empathize with his audience were clear. He Who Shall Not Be Named repeatedly tries to make his cases on various issues, but instead of exploring new ways to convince those who disagree with him, he merely repeats what he's said before, using the same ineffective language. The result is predictable: more praise for his brilliance from those who claim to see it, but no change in the opinions of those opposed. (Or, to put it another way, he continues to divide his audience rather than uniting it.)
Third, "persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or apparent truth by means of persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question." This last principle focuses on the kinds of arguments the speaker brings to the speech.
Those who support this president accept the premises of his arguments and the way he draws conclusions from them--for example, Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, and therefore our military presence must continue, no matter what. Those who oppose him see his premises--Iraq as central front, for example--as a conclusion he's drawn from faulty prior argument. It's at this point that his failure on Aristotle's second principle--his ability to see that his audience isn't buying the soap, the necessity of finding a better argument, and his unwillingness to do so--demolishes the third principle. He can't see that people aren't buying, so he can't come up with a more suitable argument.

History recognizes that Lincoln was reasoning from premises that were proven largely correct. That's why, in the end, I believe history will not (just as Aristotle would not) judge Bush as Lincoln's equal rhetorically. The weight of the false premises within Bush's basic arguments is just too great. The falsehoods contribute to the divisiveness of his rhetoric, and they diminish the moral character an effective speaker must possess. Three strikes, and you're out.

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