Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Presidential Rhetoric: Grading the Graders

I don't care to read about politics before breakfast, let alone before my tea and shower, but today I stepped out onto the ice and fired up Twitter early in the morn. Naturally, right up in my face popped this Reason blurb of an article in which "experts" graded President Obama's recent inaugural address. I couldn't resist, not only because both alleged experts and laymen habitually overestimate this president's rhetoric, but because any easy praise irks me. It is no small matter to put an idea into someone's head, thus it is no small slight to the craft and its masters to heap undeserved praise on. . . let us say, the inexpert. I'm also in the middle of reading a book on Cicero's Against Verres and thus at this moment not particularly forgiving. So what did I do first?

First, I tried to find out a little about our experts and turned to their bio pages at their respective universities or personal sites, if possible.
  1. William Brown, chair of the department of strategic communication and journalism at Regent University
  2. Stephen J. Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington
  3. Kathleen E. Kendall, research professor of communication at the University of Maryland at College Park
  4. Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of communication and director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia
  5. Martin J. Medhurst, professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University
  6. Theodore F. Sheckels, professor of English and communication studies at Randolph-Macon College [No Faculty Bio Available]
  7. Gerald R. Shuster, professor of communication at University of Pittsburgh
  8. Mary E. Stuckey, professor of communications and political science at Georgia State University
  9. Ronald C. White Jr.
Alas, none of this research turned up any clear experts on rhetoric and oratory. There's plenty of writing about politics and "communication" and history, but scarcely any on, well, rhetoric. Forget about brass tacks talk of Greek, Latin, Demosthenes, Cicero, Aristotle, Quintilian. . .

Based on what we can see, these professors do not seem the experts to whom we should turn for a full, systematic, rhetorical analysis. Their views are surely relevant, but hardly definitive.

Only two professors, Martin Medhurst and Gerald R. Schuster, mention on their pages anything which remotely sounds like scholarly discussion of rhetoric. Of these two only Mr. Medhurst has his course descriptions online (It's 2013: Get with the program, universities!) and his course on Presidential Rhetoric seems credible though not necessarily rooted in the fundamentals.

Professor Medhurst seems to bear the most relevant expertise in having edited, "Presidential Speechwriting: From the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution and Beyond," and "Critical Reflections on the Cold War: Linking Rhetoric and History," volumes of mixed quality and relevance to our discussion here. These volumes both focus more on intersection of speech-writing, politics, and policy than fundamental rhetorical analyses. The contributing authors talk the talk of rhetorical analysis, throwing around deliberative and partitio, but there is precious little extended, systematic analysis. The criteria are thrown out and then not followed up. Some articles even betray a clear blindness to the Classics. How can one cite a modern author's view of, "rhetoric as epistemic" without at least a nod to Plato and Gorgias?

Maybe, though, these scholars possess the appropriate expertise by their training even if their scholarly careers are not perfectly attuned to the needs of our present discussion. Alas, their faculty bios do not list their courses and grades.

We have only left to judge them, then, by their contributions to this Inside Higher Ed article.

Second, the professors' own writing is abysmal. Their remarks seem improvised, as if the professors were interviewed, but should we give experts on communication a pass for that? Take a gander at some of these gag-inducing clunkers:
  • where citizens are bound to each other as a way of protecting (Farnsworth)
  • President Obama’s second inaugural had moments of greatness, on this date of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as when he tied his speech closely to King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, both in parallel language and in his theme of equality. (Kendall)
  • seemed more confident with a sense of urgency (McKinney)
  • signaled that he intends to pursue (Medhurst)
  • what Obama hopes will be a sizable majority to pursue (Scheckels)
  • balanced persuasion with direction, and hope. (Shuster)
  • with and without adherence to focusing (Shuster)
  • the overall speech was gracefully done (Stuckey) (N.B. Beware non-adverbial uses of overall. The adjectival use will sink your noun like a stone and the noun makes the reader think of overalls.)
  • What makes us exceptional, he told us -- from Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall, will be an inclusive nation where everyone enjoys (White)
Editor on aisle five! It's a shame one could spill so much red in grading the graders.

Speaking of red, a note to the one at Inside Higher Ed: what Professor Brown gave you was not a rubric.

Lastly, these paragraphs are useless without analysis and examples. I expect, and hope, there exist detailed analyses behind them, but in the absence of such, what good are cliches and summaries? What are we supposed to make of statements like, "the energy seemed lower," or that the speech, "was better," "had references," and was "interesting" and "optimistic." These meaningless phrases are as useless as those other remarks which are mere summaries. 

I did not intend to analyze the president's second inaugural the way I did his first, but let's take a little look for fun. [Full Transcript]
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens, each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
What stands out most is the definition of his own inauguration not only as the fulfillment of the promise of democracy, but also as the source of national unity. He is the first idea in his speech.

A few grammatical observations:
  • bear witness is a meaningless archaism to lend dignity to the speech. 
  • that what is a relative clause fumble. 
  • articulated in a declaration made more than is a giant brick
  • made more than two centuries ago would be better supplanted by one vivid adjective
A few logical observations:
  • A promise is something is a declaration that something will be done. What is the, "promise of our democracy?" It cannot be that all men are created equal because that is a premise, an assertion, not an activity. This statement is just a pleasantry thrown out there. 
  • How does the election of the president recall that all men are created equal? This is not official "question begging" (petitio principii) but some attempt at logic would be, well, persuasive. 
As with his first inaugural, the rhythmic gesture is ponderous and the effect is a leaden opening. There is no manipulation of periodic length to create an ebb and flow of tension. The vocabulary is dull and the verbs are limp and not consistently utilized to energize the speech. 

I would just like to add a few observations about the subsequent paragraphs:
  • The beginning of the second paragraph is a most peculiar place to slip into the third person.
  • This is not the place for a history lesson.
  • How on earth could anyone have chosen the word noted in the following:
Through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword, we noted that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half slave, and half free.
Through repeated bloody violence, we noted

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