January 29, 2004 - Political Rhetoric in America, Part 1
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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- political rhetoric in America.
RS: This time, Howard Dean didn't scream. He finished what he called a "solid second" behind John Kerry in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
AA: It was a far cry from last week, when the former Vermont governor was a distant third in the Iowa caucuses -- the first major test of popularity among the Democratic presidential candidates.
RS: It's not often that a speech becomes the talk of the nation. But the one Howard Dean gave after his surprise loss in Iowa quickly spawned creative remixes on the Internet.
AA: And it got a name. Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963 became Howard Dean's "I Have a Scream" speech in 2004.
DEAN: "... We're going to California and Texas and New York, and we are going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we are going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House, yeah!"
AA: "How do you think that went over with Iowans?"
GOLDFORD: "Oh, I don't think it went over well with anybody outside of perhaps the most dedicated Dean followers."
AA: Dennis Goldford is a political scientist in Iowa.
GOLDFORD: "From all reports, for those inside the venue where he gave that speech, it was received well, because the purpose was to pump up his supporters. But there's always television on, and the cameras are already there. And I think this particular rhetorical moment, if you will, will rank up there with Richard Nixon's nasty concession speech when he lost the governor's race in California in 1962 and he told the press 'you won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore."
RS: "So he appeared to be a bit over the edge."
GOLDFORD: "Yes, this particular speech, I think, illustrated why so many people had misgivings about Dean, that he seemed just a little bit too intense and a little bit too angry rather than gracious and able to roll with the punches."
RS: "Can we move now to just political rhetoric in general?"
RS: "And what would you consider some helpful tips for our listeners as they listen to the politicians during this presidential year."
GOLDFORD: "Well, one key point I think is to suggest that if you want to understand whether at least an American politician is really saying anything meaningful, ask yourself if anyone in his right mind would campaign by affirming the opposite. In other words, if a politician says 'I'm against unnecessary regulations,' who's going to campaign and say 'I'm for unnecessary regulations'? So the question is not whether you're against unnecessary regulations. It's what counts as unnecessary regulations.
"Similarly if a president says, or a candidate says, 'I'm in favor of a strong national defense.' Rhetorically, it's an attempt to bond with the audience without their thinking too much about what's being said."
RS: "So what you're asking our listeners to do is to listen to this rhetoric and see if perhaps the candidate goes a little further."
GOLDFORD: "Yes, to assess these people critically, you've go to proceed to the next question, 'what do you mean by that?' Or 'what counts for you as energy conservation or terrorism or a strong national defense?'" RS: "And what will you be paying attention to during all this political discourse, as you sit down and watch television or attend events?" AA: "Does anything still surprise you?"
GOLDFORD: "Well, what surprises me at times if when somebody actually does say something substantive and something more than just speaking in cliches and soundbites. Television has made politics, as so much American life and life around the world, much more immediate, much more accessible to people. But at the same time it has shrunken our attention span, and in many ways it's dumbed down our discourse. Our discourse isn't as sharp and critical and self-aware as it used to be.
"The surprising and welcome event is when somebody actually sketches a philosophy of governance, so people understand really what this is all about. 'OK, you're for all these particular policies, but why? What's the unifying thread that makes them part of a coherent whole?' I've seen much sharper rhetoric of that sort, much clearer, in German political campaigns, for example, and sometimes in British political campaigns. But in America, you tend because there's so much agreement on basic kinds of values, you tend to get so much of this laundry list approach to campaigning."
AA: Dennis Goldford chairs the political science department at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. You'll hear more from Professor Goldford next week.
RS: And that's Wordmaster. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and we're on the Web at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.
MUSIC: "Faint"/Linkin Park