The passing of former president George H. W. Bush gives us a chance to think about lessons learned and opportunities missed. Bush’s most famous speech line came in his Acceptance Speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention. Having served as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President for eight years, Bush had been a shoo-in favorite for the Republican presidential nomination. By 1988, the Republican Party’s formerly complex economic policy had come down to opposing taxes, especially taxes that might bother rich people. Accordingly, Bush mentioned taxes seven times during the speech. Bush's most famous line was also his most unwise: “My opponent won't rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I'll say no, and they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and I'll say, to them, 'Read my lips: No new taxes.'" He later found it necessary to raise taxes, and some people think this is not only why he lost his 1992 reelection campaign, but also why Republicans have been reluctant to compromise ever since.
Read my lips: No new taxes. That was an impossible promise to keep. In general, I’m leery of politicians who make absolute promises. When I think of them, I’m reminded of a Bible story.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Book 23, a group of religious conservatives, who found the apostle Paul’s preaching to be disturbing, swore a murderous oath that they would neither eat or drink until Paul was dead. Paul’s nephew got wind of the plot and informed a Roman officer, who assigned 470 soldiers, no fewer, to guard Paul. They escorted Paul safely to the governor, Felix, for trial; Felix ruled that Paul should be sent to Rome so the Emperor could judge his case.
I have often wondered what happened to the cruel but foolish men who swore neither to eat and drink until Paul was dead. Once their mission failed, they faced a choice: they could break their oath by eating and drinking, or they could die of thirst and starvation. The Bible doesn’t say which. They had sealed themselves up into a difficult situation, had they not?
A promise never to raise taxes sounds good, and conservative voters will like hearing it. But there are many times that taxes need to be raised. Government revenues might be insufficient to fund necessary programs. The government might need to raise taxes to cool an inflationary economy. In Bush’s case, a contributing factor was that Republicans did not control both houses of Congress, and Bush needed to offer a compromise to get Democrats to agree to the budget. Congress did push him to raise taxes, just as he had warned, and he caved. Really, what else could he have done?
Bush did not agree to a large increase in taxes. Most people probably didn’t even notice: I certainly did not when I filed my tax return. Most people did know, however, that he had broken his unreasonable and unrealistic promise.
Be careful what you say when you’re running for office. What you say might come back to haunt you. Candidates can make all kinds of unrealistic promises: presidentsand other government officials must deal with the real world.
By the way, I heard President Bush speak in person at a 2002 rhetoric conference at the Bush Presidential Library. Conference organizer Martin Medhurstfound Bush in his office and brought him down to meet with us for a few minutes. He gave an articulate, charming, and complimentary talk. I was lucky enough to expand my brief talk at the conference into a book chapter.
It really is a shame that a single unwise statement, drafted by a speechwriter (in this case, Peggy Noonan) who would never need to accept responsibility for what she wrote, came to define an entire presidency. It would be more proper for us to remember Bush for saying, in the same speech, “I want a kinder, and gentler nation.” That was more typical of his real feelings.
But, then again, words make a difference, don’t they? And no matter who wrote it, Bush, and not his staff, was responsible for making his unwise, absolute, and unkeepable promise.
Ford appeared on stage to much applause, wearing a quite distinguished-looking beard, and laid out the issues forcefully and persuasively. His speech garnered attention in the news. This was partly because he is a celebrity, but also because he spoke so forcefully. He never yelled but he projected clearly; he spoke slowly; he sounded confident. He used language with effect.
In his introduction, Ford identified with his audience: “You’re here, I’m here, because we care.” He warned of “global climate catastrophe,” a startling statement that gains attention. Wasting no time, Ford hit his first point, that carbon emissions are only part of the problem. “And I beg of you, don’t forget nature,” he insisted, for “today the destruction of nature accounts for more global emissions than all the cars and trucks in the world.” So much attention focuses, rightly, on fossil fuels, that we sometimes forget about the climate’s need for green vegetation. Ford’s forceful language (“I beg of you”) encouraged the audience to notice that point.
“As long as Sumatra burns, we will have failed; so long as the Amazon’s great forests are slashed and burned, so long as the protected lands of tribal people indigenous people are allowed to be encroached upon, so long as wetlands and bogs are destroyed, our climate goals will remain out of reach.”
The parallel language (“As long as,” “so long as”) gave his language cumulative power. The phrases add to a total that exceeds the parts.
To protect nature, Ford suggested that we should “empower indigenous communities to use their knowledge, their history, their imagination, our science to save their heritage and their land. Respect and ensure their rights.” The rhetorical technique here is a tricolon(“their knowledge, their history, their imagination”). People love to hear things in threes, which balances Ford’s point.
Ford used his voice to emphasize key points. People often want easy, modest solutions. Too often, however, we need more difficult solutions. To convey urgency, Ford said: “Set a goal to cut costs and increase scale dramatically.” He said “dramatically” loudly, emphasizing the point. He didn’t yell; he just projected his voice. Little solutions wouldn’t work, and he implied this just by how he used his voice.
As a solution, Ford said that the world needs to “Educate and elect leaders who believe in science and understand the importance of protecting nature.” He continued: “Stop giving power to people who don’t believe in science or worse than that pretend they don’t believe in science for their own self-interest. They know who they are. We know who they are.” He spoke the phrases that I put into boldface loudly and firmly and said “we” even more forcefully. This conveyed his moral condemnation of people who misrepresent the truth.
Specific language always shows more power than passive language. Ford brought up the human side of climate change, for example, “It’s the mother in the Philippines who worries that the next big storm is going to rip her infant out of her arms.” That was vivid and specific. It was a powerful statement. Once you hear that, you need to think about the image that Ford creates in our minds. You can’t help it.
Ford gave this speech almost two months before the horrible Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire that swept through California. Presciently, Ford mentioned California: “It’s the people in California who are fleeing from unprecedented fires.”
Ford challenged human arrogance using the rhetorical technique of thesis and antithesis: “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.” True enough, and obvious when he phrases it that way. Ending, he called us to action: “Kick this monster.”
NASA chart of historical CO2 levels
Ford is, of course, not a scientist. I would never quote him as an expert source. He is, instead, a celebrity who uses his fame to speak for an important cause. His goal is advocacy, not science. We must, however, remember that the debate about climate change is no longer occurring in the scientific community. Qualified climate scientists have long since almost unanimously agreed that the evidence of climate change is overwhelming, and that human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, is its main cause. As Naomi Oreskes pointed out in Science several years ago, “there is a scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have repeatedly tried to make this clear. It is time for the rest of us to listen.” Or, as NASA’s Earth Science Communications Team explained just this month, carbon dioxide has reached record atmospheric levels. This has led to shrinking polar ice sheets, sea level rise, and warming oceans.
The point is, based on extensive data, scientists have reached near-universal agreement that human activity is causing serious climate change. Nevertheless, powerful economic and political forces are unwilling to admit the obvious, and instead launched massive propaganda efforts to protect their wealth and fame. The problem is not whether climate change is real; the problem is how to get the American population to discredit right-wing propaganda and recognize the truth. So, Ford was not speaking as a researcher, but as a communicator, a publicist for his cause.
Good communication is worth a lot. If you can’t communicate, you can’t persuade people. Ford’s rhetorical methods brought light and publicity to an important issue.
P.S.: A note to my fellow communication folks. Communication studies today look at social issues, hermeneutics, and insights from continental philosophers. That’s all good. But language and delivery still lie behind much rhetorical excellence. These are the two rhetorical canons that we have underestimated ever since Peter Ramus’ regrettable attempt to reform rhetorical studies. Let’s stop making that mistake.
P.P.S.: Readers are invited to browse through my blog, where I often comment on Donald Trump’s superior delivery and presentational skills. Here’s a good place to start.
Conspiracy theorists are popping up with election conspiracy theories. They complain that officials in heavily-populated areas of Florida were rigging the vote for the Democrats. They have no shred of evidence, which is typical. They are very angry, which is also typical. They are not looking at Georgia, where there seems to be at least some real evidence of official misconduct.
All conspiracy theories start with some shred of evidence or truth. This one has less than usual, but it has some. From a few specks of real but shadowy and misleading information, conspiracy theorists project a massive but fictional picture. Here we go:
The Specks of Truth Behind the Conspiracy Theory
1. Somebody photographed a truck full of gray boxes marked “ballots” getting loaded onto a truck. Some poll workers loading ballot boxes into their personal cars, which, it turns out, is entirely legal. Fox News, always good for a good conspiracy theory, reported that: “Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has highlighted a range of possible problems in the county—including a suspected mystery truck delivery of ballots.” This was all nonsense; completed ballots were marked in orange and the ballots in the truck were in gray boxes, indicating that they were blank supplies.
2. Mail-in ballots are also being counted slowly, which is not a big surprise, since there are many of them and they need to be processed individually. This led President Trump himself to complain: “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new balance showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible – ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!” Florida Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio, both of whom should know better, said similar things. There was, of course no shred of evidence for any of it. Florida Judge Jack Tuter noted that there was no evidence of electoral wrongdoing in Broward County.
3. All conspiracy theories start with deep suspicion. There had been past misconduct in Broward County, although none of it was on a big scale, and this makes many Republicans apprehensive.
Now, the facts are still coming out and the election, which looks close, will probably be litigated for weeks. Still, the conspiracy theories seem to be unusually groundless.
Two Steps of Conspiracy-Mongering
Like many conspiracy theories, this one takes two steps. In step one, unscrupulous people propose hoaxes to help their selfish causes. In this case, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio probably know perfectly well that their accusations lacked merit. Scott promised to order state law enforcement to investigate the balance in Broward County. So far, this doesn’t seem to have happened, since Scott never actually filed a criminal complaint. (An interesting here: politicians conjure up wild accusations with impunity, while filing a false police report is serious business.) Election observers have found no evidence of misconduct. Scott’s team filed lawsuits. Time will tell what the judges think about them. Democrats responded with typically overheated rhetoric about Scott wanting to be a third-world dictator.
In step two, people who are motivated to mistrust Democrats or who fear government can pick up the conspiracy theory, spread it, and amplify it. My social media feed is packed with people talking about Democrats stealing elections. Gateway Pundit, which is an even better source of conspiracy theories and Fox News, quoted South Carolina’s once-reasonable Senator Lindsey Graham: “There’s nothing Democrats won't to do to win.” The once-reasonable but now-inane National Review published an editorial calling for Broward County’s election supervisor, Brenda Snipes, to be fired for incompetence. One anonymous social media user posted, “Meet Brenda Snipes. She is the Broward County Supervisor Of Elections & also as corrupt as they come. Hmm. A truck load of ballots showed up in Broward on election night. Really?” Well, no, not really. Another posted, “This is out of control. Gillum and Nelson are insisting and trying to count illegal alien votes to surpass DeSantis and Scott. Illegal aliens are the biggest influencers in our elections, PERIOD. Foreign nationals will determine who our senator is going to be?! I DON’T THINK SO.” (What apparently started this was that Democratic lawyers protested that one ballot from someone who might be a citizen was being excluded.)
Rubio, Scott, and Trump spread some pretty wild accusations. Once they had the thing cranked up, however, the conspiracy theory became wilder and wilder.
Anyway, the election conspiracy theory started with tiny, tiny snippets of information. There really were trucks, although the trucks were not doing anything illegal. There really are a lot of ballots, and it’s taking too long to count them. True enough, but not evidence of misconduct.
But let us suppose that you are a voter, and that your index of suspicion is at hair-trigger level. Let us suppose that hundreds of Russian botsswamping over social media are reinforcing your suspicions. Let us suppose that popular talk radio hosts, few of them seem to have much information on any subject, are spewing out versions of the conspiracy theory. The bandwagon effect takes hold, and many people become convinced to believe something for which there is no evidence at all. Indeed, many people become convinced of something that seems to have been refuted.
So, the people who invent the conspiracy theories – in this case, Republican politicians – surely knew that they were speaking falsely. Unless we engage in critical thinking, however, we too easily convinced ourselves to believe things that are unproven, or even that have been disproved. So, countless people who have good intentions, but poor analytical skills, come to believe absurdities. Mistrust spreads. Notice, of course, that mere suspicion that maybe something is wrong explodes into certainty that something is wrong - all without evidence.
Mistrust underlies all conspiracy theories. But when we believe an unproven conspiracy theory, we get angrier, and our mistrust grows. And grows. And grows! Where will it end?
As George Lakoff said, people make political decisions on the basis of emotion, not logic.
Before his October 27, 2018 political rally in Illinois, President Donald Trump delivered a brief, seemingly impromptu statement about the mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue, during which a right-wing bigot armed with a powerful large-magazine rifle killed 11 innocent people and wounded several others, including four armed police officers. President Trump faced a difficult rhetorical challenge: to express sympathy and horror without offending his right-wing base voters. Did he get the job done? Not really. I’m not sure that any speaker in his situation could have done better. It's better not to get into situations like that. I’ll explain why at the end.
Here’s the heart of his statement:
“As President, it’s a level of terribleness and horror that you can’t even believe. It’s hard to believe. It’s just — you stand as President and you do what people say is a good job. What I say — you just do the absolute best. You say something like this and you see something like this, and you say, ‘How can it happen?’
“As President, as bad as you felt before, you feel worse. And I just — I just find it hard to believe. You know what’s going on; it’s at least 11 people are dead. Police officers were very badly wounded. Three and probably four very, very badly wounded. But sounds like they’ll be okay.
“They were unbelievable. The law enforcement was unbelievable. And we’ll be getting a full report in about an hour from now.
“So we’re in Illinois, and we will make the best of it. Thank you all very much.”
But how could he? Mr. Obama’s thesis was to unify the nation, end divisions, and establish modest gun-control measures. President Trump couldn’t say any of that, not really, because his political and rhetorical approaches have taken him in different directions for years. After the Charlottesville rally, which pitted neo-Nazis against peace demonstrators, he said that there were "very fine people on both sides." He criticized a Hispanic judge: "Now this judge is of Mexican heritage, I'm building a wall." It's a little late for Mr. Trump to speak in a unifying style.
It was also obvious that even the armed response that conservatives often advocate would not have been quite enough, since the shooter took down four armed officers before he was disabled.
First, what did Mr. Trump do right? First, he expressed horror about the event. I’m sure that he was sincere. Anyone who wasn’t a hateful murderer would be horrified. He praised the police officers, who showed great bravery in the face of the killer’s superior firepower. They deserved his praise.
Second, what did he not say? He didn’t call for gun control; he has long since backed off from his 2017 advocacy of modest gun controls. His conservative base would never tolerate such a move. He didn’t condemn anti-Semitism in dramatic, explicit terms. That was awkward. His beloved daughter Ivanka is a faithful Jew. There is some objective evidence that America’s right-wing voters continue to harbor anti-Semitic impulses. Those groups, unfortunately, continue to offer Mr. Trump considerable support, which he will need if Republicans are to flourish in next week's Congressional elections. Politically, did Mr. Trump feel that he was walking a tightrope between his own feelings, on the one hand, and the need to placate his base, on the other? It’s hard to say.
So, Mr. Trump’s brief statement was fine but weak. He said nothing morally wrong or inappropriate. (He did make a factual error in his introduction when he implied that the New York Stock Exchange reopened the day after the 9/11 attacks; it did not.)
But Mr. Trump’s brief statement didn’t really accomplish much, either. He needed to say more. I think he knew that he needed to say more, but maybe he wasn’t sure what to say. At best, all he could hope for was to avoid digging himself into a deeper hole than he was already in. He did come to Pittsburgh on October 30, where he made a solemn but rather awkward appearance.
Shortly after his Illinois speech, Mr. Trump created a brilliant distraction by threatening to end birthright citizenship by executive order. That was ridiculous, but he partially changed the national dialogue, distracting us from thinking about the hate crimes. That wasn’t admirable, but it seemed to alter the week’s news stories, as various knowledgeable people occupied much TV news time and newspaper column inches pointing out how silly it was to try to change the 14th Amendment by executive order. Oddly, even one of his advisor’s spouses wrote an article pointing out how wrong Trump was. Embarrassing though that was, it took people’s minds away from the hate crimes.
Could another speaker in that situation have done better? Probably not. It’s better not to get yourself in situations like that to begin with. Mr. Trump's rhetoric is sometimes, shall we say, very aggressive. Did his previous rhetoric contribute to the attack? That is still being debated. Some Republicans falsely blamed Jewish billionaire George Soros attack for financing a refugee caravan heading through Mexico, and anti-Semitism motivated the attacker. So, it is possible.
Mr. Trump's previous rhetoric put him into a hole. If Mr. Trump finds a way to back down from his more inflammatory speech, he might be better able to heal the nation during times of horror and crisis. Is it too late? Or can he still do that?
If you are digging yourself into a hole, stop digging. If you are already in a hole, dig yourself out. If you can't dig yourself out, call for someone to rescue you. If no one can rescue you, you are in trouble.
Rhetorical scholars have all read Lloyd Bitzer's famous article The Rhetorical Situation, which explains how speakers adapt to the needs (he calls them "exigences")that a given situation creates. Mr. Trump found himself in an awkward rhetorical situation. He wandered around the key issue, and then he dropped back 10 and punted. Some days go like that.