November 1, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Campaign Rhetoric

In a talk that she recently gave at Lewis & Clark College, Katha Pollitt, emphasizing the complexities of running a meaningful presidential campaign, pointed out that anyone in the room could run for president and come up with a platform consisting of all the right ideas, but that these “right ideas” would be meaningless without the support of a movement to make the presidential bid credible. Arguably, one result of this need to create a movement is the polemical cast of much campaign rhetoric. If rhetoric, as classically defined, is the structuring of thought in public discourse, then the rhetoric of polemic tends toward a discourse that is brutely simplistic, neatly dividing the world into categories of the warriors for the good and the axis of evil, the enlightened and the benighted, the saved and the damned. One of the astonishing characteristics of Barack Obama’s candidacy is the extent to which he has been able to maintain a nuanced discourse as he confronts the complexities of our contemporary world in the context of a presiedential campaign. Without evading or avoiding real issues of defending the country from aggression, he has refused the kind of simple categories that would turn the world into a Saturday matinee of years gone by, where one could tell the good guys from the bad by the color of hats they wore.

Many commentators and pundits have taken note of the refreshing intelligence of Obama’s writing and speeches. For example, commenting on Obama’s writing style, especially in his books, Andrew Delbanco wrote in The New Republic (9 July 2008) about Obama’s complex, “dialectical mind.” He understands, for example, that many media protrayals make evangelical Christians out to be less tolerant than many actually are, as many portrayals of secularists make them out to be less spiritual than many actually are. Spirituality, which is one’s way of experiencing meaning and meaningfulness in one’s life, does not necessarily include belief in a supreme being; at the same time, embracing a faith commitment does not guarantee any depth of spirituality. In a column that ran in The Oregonian on 1 July 2008, Leonard Pitts pointed out that Obama “comes across as a man brave enough to reason and to expect that voters will do the same, a man brave enough to treat intelligent adults like intelligent adults.”

This belief in the persuasive power of reasonable speech has been one of the striking characteristics of Obama’s campaign. It is not that he has avoided making any unfortunate statements at all, but that they have been relatively rare. For the most part, including in the debates, he has maintained a focus on the issues in strikingly calm and disciplines terms. I have long thought that one of the president’s primary jobs, along with the making of executive decisions, has to do with influencing public discourse. Of course, members from all three branches of government can do so, but it falls to the president to address the nation on a regular basis. The yearly ritual that focsues attention squarely on the president is the State of the Union Address. Formally an address to Congress, this speech has become a media event that the whole nation can virtually attend through television, radio, and the Internet. Now that it looks like Obama will win–something about which many pundits on both the left and the right seem to be in general agreement–I am looking forward to four years, and perhaps more, of nuanced, insightful, and even wise addresses to the nation. I remain hopeful.