an age when "rhetoric" is synonymous with empty political jabs, it's
unlikely any eulogies will remember Ronald Reagan as the Great
Rhetorician, but perhaps they should.
local professor of communication says rhetoric is no dirty word. He
defines it as "strategic communication designed to induce cooperation
in individuals who would otherwise be divided."
Reagan never moved great armies, he certainly reached massive and often
starkly divided audiences, sometimes within the same breath.
the brief speech that replaced the State of the Union address Jan. 28,
1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff.
told America's schoolchildren: "I know it's hard to understand, but
sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process
of exploration and discovery."
next paragraph had a not-so-subtle hint to the Soviet Union: "We don't
hide our space program. We don't keep secrets and cover things up. We
do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we
wouldn't change it for a minute."
the same speech he talked to the victims, to their families, and to the
people who would continue the space program, despite some who "slipped
the surly bonds of earth."
speech, partly drafted by Peggy Noonan, ranks eighth on the list of the
100 most significant American political speeches of the 20th century,
voted on by 137 scholars of American public address.
list is on americanrhetoric.com, a Web site built and maintained by Dr.
Michael Eidenmuller, assistant professor of communication at The
University of Texas at Tyler, where he teaches rhetorical theory and
counts Reagan among three "great rhetorical presidents" of the 20th
century, a list that also includes Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F.
Reagan's words were not always received as fondly as they are often
recalled at a time of mourning. He had "a public relations army to
ensure that his legacy is rhetoric," Eidenmuller says.
media was not that kind to him while he was in office," he says. "His
'Evil Empire' speech was trotted out the next day and put in a negative
found himself on the defensive with that speech, in which he cast the
nation's relationship with the Soviet Union in moral terms for the
first time, and in his touting of the costly Strategic Defense
Initiative and his economic policies.
writes Calvin Woodward in a news analysis for the Associated Press,
"exists only on his ability to connect with people."
for the blurring of the lines between multinational politics and
morality, Eidenmuller says, "You didn't hear this kind of language
it has certainly surfaced since, perhaps most loudly in President
Bush's "axis of evil" and the war on terrorism, a war he has cast in no
uncertain moral terms.
Bush, Eidenmuller argues, lacks the "Mr. Rogers" quality of Reagan,
"who explained sophisticated policy in a neighborly way."
He used populist rhetoric, Eidenmuller says, preferring stories over statistics.
his first inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1981, when Reagan issued the
call to curb government amid one of the worst periods of sustained
inflation in U.S. history, he told Americans they would have to make
sacrifices to solve the nation's problems.
rather than defining sacrifice in terms of money, he pointed to a
nondescript marker in Arlington National Cemetery that belonged to a
soldier who died in World War II and left this pledge in his diary:
"America must win this war. Therefore I will work, I will save, I will
sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as
if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone."
June 6, 1994, Reagan stood on Omaha Beach and used the story of a child
who returned to Normandy to honor the promise of her father, a D-Day
veteran who had died of cancer.
Where others failed to instill confidence with statistics, Reagan succeeded with rhetoric, Eidenmuller says.
"If Carter alerted us to the idea that Americans were lacking confidence, Reagan was the rhetorical antidote to that," he said.
President Jimmy Carter knew it.
probably know as well as anybody what a formidable communicator and
campaigner that President Reagan was," Carter said before a Sunday
school class in his hometown last weekend. "It was because of him that
I was retired from my last job."
Mark Collette covers Southern Smith and Upshur counties. He can be reached at 903.596.6303. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org