January 31, 2004

: Kerry in KC…

I attended the John Kerry rally in Kansas City this morning. It’s a good thing for a person who spends so much time analyzing texts to actually go see and hear a live performance from time to time.

I’m always fascinated by how well a good advance crew can set up an effective rally on short notice. I arrived about 30 minutes before the start. At that time a (presumed) member of the communications staff was carefully arranging the people on the bleachers who would provide the background. She had them raise their signs and then carefully considered the placement of each. She edited the message as surely as any text-jockey working on a computer.

The speech was pure stump. Every sound bite we’ve heard before. But the point isn’t just the words. The point is also the pathos of the event–getting the troops fired up. This feels far different as a participant than as a passive watcher of television.

And there’s the irony and the tragedy of Howard Dean–and of all politicians, really. They feed the crowd their crafted promises and intentions, and the crowd responds creating emotional images for television. It’s the passive television watchers who count because there are so many more of them, but the pundits and spinmeisters get the last word.

UPDATE (7:05 p.m.): Here’s an account of Kerry’s developing stump speech by The New York Times. It carries a Kansas City dateline, but doesn’t really involve his rally here.

January 30, 2004

Why are you a loser?…

In my previous entry I take a snarky shot at journalists by asking: Do they even study the rhetorical uses of fallacy in j-school?

Well, it appears they learn it somewhere (but not in the way I meant). Among the interesting points in Jay Rosen’s latest column, he demonstrates how CNN’s Wolf Blitzer used the fallacy of many questions to torture Dennis Kucinich. Such a fallacy asks a question that cannot be answered without accepting the premises of the questioner. For example: “Have you stopped beating your wife”? You cannot answer this yes-or-no question without admitting to being a wife beater.

Blitzer asked Kucinich why he was a loser. As Rosen explains:

It is not for voters’ ears…Blitzer asks it for reasons wholly internal to his profession, and the only interest served, I think, is the journalist’s. Everyone else loses, especially Kucinich, whose minute of public humiliation may not be Wolf Blitzer’s aim, but is the certain effect.

It is a question ignorant of its own psychology and effect, and thus it advertises the journalist as someone capable of a certain cruelty, which is not a moral category you want to be in. But the most striking thing about “why do you think your campaign has been a total failure so far?” is the impossibility of Kucinich answering it without appearing to prove the premise.

Fallacies are rhetorical tools. They are only false in the logic branch of the discipline of philosophy which concerns itself with, among other things, trying to nail down some correspondence between language use and reality that can be described as “true.”

To my way of thinking, all human utterances are rhetorical: a speaker trying to persuade someone about something (no matter how important or trivial). It is for this reason (and some others) that rhetoric scholar James A. Berlin claimed that “language is never innocent.” Journalists act as if it were. They act as if their use of language is connected to no intention other than some vaguely articulated desire to inform the public.

Surely that’s not what Rosen has illustrated here. He says Blitzer’s question has zero “public service validity.” I often use another overblown academic term to mean the same thing: low political utility. But, really, they identify the same thing: ________.

January 30, 2004

: Have worries, will travel…

As much as I’d like to think otherwise, the fact of the matter is that I would make a poor campaign communications manager. The reason: I’d spend too much time trying to determine the rhetorical effects of a message rather than just communicating it. Maybe I could get a job doing only that–a worrier for hire.

For example, I’d be very nervous about this quote from Howard Dean:

“If Senator Kerry had accomplished anything in health care, he ought to be able to explain to the people of South Carolina how come there are so many uninsured kids here and there aren’t any in my state.”

Now there are a few good reasons to like this line. The best reason, in my opinion, is that it is a skillful use of fallacy (yes, despite Aristotle’s protests to the contrary, the fallacies are tools of rhetoric). This fallacy is obvious and for two reasons: 1) Dean could say this about any politician in Washington, and 2) Dean is criticizing a Senator for not doing what he claims to have done as a Governor, i.e. a comparison of political apples and oranges.

We could eliminate the fallacy easily enough by having Dean direct the comment at “Washington insiders” in general, thus tarring Kerry by implication. But aren’t we all getting a little tired of the “insider” schtick from all quarters?

If we don’t worry too much about this fallacy, it probably won’t be noticed. Plus, what reporter is going to point this out? Do they even study the rhetorical uses of fallacy in j-school?

Wait, I know what job I could do: counter-spinner. Look at the opportunity Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter missed:

“If Howard Dean wants to talk about records of accomplishment, then he has some explaining to do about balancing the Vermont budget on the backs of the poor, not taking action to better secure a nuclear power plant in the wake of Sept. 11 and throwing 400 family farms out of business.”

This is a fine example of a pathos bomb–heavy on emotion, light on political substance. And, yes, it’s quite quotable. Does she even see that fallacy? Can she not devise an equally pathetic sound bite that’s both stinging and politically useful? Hmmmmm…I bet I could. [Ed. Note: One must assume certain things when engaging in this type of critical analysis based on AP copy, such as: The reporter chose the best quotes and reported them in context.]

January 30, 2004

: As real as it gets…

Of course the people in the room experienced “the scream” differently. But they don’t count. The people who actually attend rallies are political props (certainly an important function to the persuasive intent of a campaign message). The real people, the ones who count (i.e. might vote in numbers that win elections), are the people watching TV at home. And they are having an entirely different experience of events mediated and spun in multiple (and bizarre) ways.

January 30, 2004

Beef up the B section!…

Earlier this week I wrote about the importance of local news, or, rather, how some journalists misunderstand its value. Check out this entry by Tim Porter. I agree with his conclusion

that newspapers will live or die on how well they reflect and connect to their communities, something that can only be measure in the amount and quality of local reporting…Editors perennially wonder what it is readers want. Ask them and they’ll tell you: Local news.

There is just no overstating the importance to a community of good reporting of local civic issues. That new school bus issue I mentioned, the one that seems soooooo boring to young journalists coming off the national attention of a presidential campaign, is exactly the stuff of civic life for the vast majority of people.

January 30, 2004

Just the facts, ma’am…

I agree with scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson that journalists should be custodians of the facts. This article in the Washington Post is a step in the right direction, except that it gives far too little attention to the details. And one or two of the “facts” involve the drama of the horse race far more than the civic importance of policy and its effects on the lives of Americans.

January 30, 2004

Rhetorica update…

For the record: I missed the Democratic debate yesterday because I chose to watch a tape of the Andre Agassi vs. Marat Safin semi-final match at the Australian Open instead. Hey, I got priorities 🙂

I’ve posted a transcript on Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2004.

January 29, 2004

Do the flip-flop boogie…

In the first chapter of the rhetoric textbook I use, the author writes something that most of my students find hard to accept at first: Opinions are community property. This is an ancient Greek concept. In our current noetic field, opinions are thought to belong to the individual.

Such thinking has some interesting effects on civic discourse. Because we think of opinions as personal, we can easily discount them as “just your opinion,” forgetting that opinions are socially formed and shared by many. Further, to attack an opinion seems to be an attack on the person, so we often think it is rude to do so–hence the admonition not to discuss religion and politics in polite company.

In politics, this notion encourages us to believe something truly odd: that politicians should not change their minds for reasons of political expediency.

Steve Chapman finds this tendency distressing: “Anyone is entitled to change his mind in the light of new evidence. The problem with politicians is that they never seem to change their minds in ways that would hinder their ambitions.” He refers to such flip-flops as empty words.

Oh, really? In other words the collective opinions of a politician’s (potential) constituents count for nothing. Oooops. I don’t think Chapman would like to hear it stated that way, but this is precisely the implication of his assertion. These are not empty words; these are opinions shared by voters the politician hopes to court and then to serve. Leadership can also mean serving the will of the people. Good leadership, and political wisdom, may be thought of as a thoughtful blending of these two positions.

The current thinking leads Chapman to a bizarre conclusion:

Experience suggests that if the candidate you like is elected, he’ll abandon every policy that attracted you, and that if the candidate you dislike is elected, he’ll pleasantly surprise you.

But knowing that doesn’t make the choice any easier. So between now and November, I intend to make an exhaustive study of each candidate’s record, credentials, speeches and position papers. Then, with a wealth of knowledge and a skeptical attitude, I’ll march into the voting booth. And flip a coin.

Failure to keep campaign promises is a serious political issue. But I find that such failure usually has little to do with a conscious attempt to deceive (there’s plenty of research about this if you care to look). Instead, a president’s failure to keep promises usually stems from making promises that are not within the scope of power of the office. Another big reason for failure is that political circumstances change or make good intentions impossible to fulfill. George H. W. Bush’s “read my lips” promise is a good example of this.

You will hear no empty words this campaign season. You will hear a range of rhetoric from the sublime to the insipid (including outright lies). But you’ll hear nothing that is without meaning. You’ll hear plenty that may help you make a much better decision than Chapman is apparently ready to make. Chapman is not joking (although I think he’s letting his writerly self get carried away in the conclusion). Such a column makes one wonder what role Chapman thinks he plays in campaign politics.

UPDATE (10:25 p.m.): With my apologies to ZZ Top:

Flip-flop Boogie

I got pol just blew into town,
He’s the one that really gets down.
When he boogie,
He do the flip-flop boogie.
Well now boogie big daddy,
Boogie woogie all night long.

I got a pol he ain’t no schnook,
He kinda funky with his slick French look.
He likes to boogie,
He do the flip-flop boogie.
Well now boogie woogie daddy,
Boogie woogie all night long.

I got a pol, he works on the hill.
He won’t do it but Howard Dean will,
When he boogie,
He do the flip-flop boogie.
Well now boogie big daddy,
Boogie woogie all night long.
Blow your lead blow your lead blow your lead.

January 28, 2004

: It worked for Kerry…

Or at least that’s the popular thinking–the Kerry campaign turned around after the staff shake-up last year. Now Howard Dean has fired campaign manager Joe Trippi and replaced him with an associate of Al Gore’s–Roy Neel.

Josh Marshall points out the irony: “I’m no purist in political matters, but isn’t Neel a Washington lobbyist? An insiders’ insider? I don’t think that makes him a bad guy. But isn’t it a little out of tune with the campaign Dean’s been running?”

At the time of Al Gore’s endorsement of Dean, I offered this opinion about the purpose of the endorsement:

I think it is possible that one of the reasons Gore chose to endorse Dean now is so the contest would appear to be over after the New Hampshire primary. Then, after Super Tuesday, we might expect the field to be cut by a third or even half. I think Gore wants Democrats entering the convention solidly behind one candidate (something he suggested in his endorsement statement). This will have the effect of giving Dean more time to make the difficult tactical/rhetorical adjustments necessary to run a presidential campaign in the political middle where these things are won.

Long-term goal: Buy Dean precious time to make the change.

That Kerry won in Iowa and New Hampshire doesn’t change the plausibility of this scenario. It just makes it more difficult to achieve. I think hiring Neel moves Dean in exactly the direction I contend.

But it appears to me (from the proximity of my office in Kansas City) that Dean is not particularly skilled at taking advice. Or at least that’s my speculation about why he has committed so many communications “errors” since declaring his candidacy (yes: the quotes indicate that, as with all rhetorical criticism, assessments may change over time as effectiveness is properly measured). So my question is: What will Neel tell him to do, and will Dean listen?

January 28, 2004

: Playing for peanuts…

Peanuts, that’s what Iowa and New Hampshire are. Now the state of Missouri, that’s big-time by comparison. John Kerry won New Hampshire and all its delegates, which number in the teens (it hardly seems worth remembering the actual figure). Missouri offers 74 delegates.

We’ll get some obnoxious commercials this week before our primary. But there’s little chance the candidates will visit for long if at all. Why?

1- Missouri needs some good spin. Who will stand up and make the argument for Missouri as an important primary state? A nameless (to me) pundit tried to make the argument last night during MSNBC’s primary coverage. The big names ignored him. Ron Reagan even spoke up for Missouri. But the master narratives are fixed. South Carolina represents The South. Missouri just looks “like America,” as Reagan put it. Ho-hum.

2- Missouri has an odd media situation. Our media slop over into neighboring states, thus confusing who the audience is. When you make a media buy in Kansas City, are you buying Kansas or Missouri? In St. Louis, is it Missouri or Illinois? These are important questions because it’s not a good thing to assume our issues are the same as those in neighboring states. We’d be better off in this regard if Jefferson City was exactly that–a city rather than a town with an attitude.

Iowa and New Hampshire are important because the news media tell us that they are and we accept it (wins there certainly are not predictive with a high degree of probability). No, wait, it’s because these contests are first and being first is important. Nope. Sorry. That evaluation is an illusion. I say this because the data show that primaries are not so much individual races (in which “first place” is important) as they are one big election extended over time.

UPDATE (12:30 p.m.): I forgot to mention the Gephardt factor. Now that he’s out, attention to Missouri goes up (a little). Here’s a rundown of the candidates’ schedules so far.

UPDATE (4:34 p.m.): In his comment to this post, JSteele correctly points out that I incorrectly said that Kerry won all the New Hampshire delegates.

UPDATE (6:15 p.m.): This, from The American Prospect:

Nonetheless, South Carolina isn’t Kerry’s top priority Wednesday. Instead, the senator breaks straight for Missouri (74), which is February 3’s most important (delegate-wise), and most ignored, state. Originally pegged as territory friendly to Dick Gephardt, not one candidate has bought TV time here — not surprising seeing as it’s too expensive for the limited exposure — but Kerry has $1.5 million to burn on ads this week, so stay tuned. During his St. Louis visit, Kerry also anticipates endorsements from former Senators Jean Carnahan and Tom Eagleton. Not to be outdone, Edwards will come for a visit later on Wednesday, and he’ll eventually hit four cities stretching all the way from the Gateway Arch to Kansas City. Dean, Clark, and Joe Lieberman might visit later this week.

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