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Political Rhetoric - the lost art...


W.C. Green is from good Republican stock--her grandmother used to render them down for soup. Since she can't grow up to be Cato the Elder, she takes out her disappointment on modern orators.

by Rhetorix, January 10th, 2001

Complaints about cultural decline are not new; the Romans and Greeks worried that poor education and poorer behavior would bring about the collapse of their societies. The ancients, however, were taught to speak well, to pronounce their words distinctly and proclaim their ideas clearly. Modern man (and, if you insist, woman) cannot make this claim. The noble art of persuasion has devolved into the blare of television ads and six o'clock sound-bites.

To remedy this, Rhetorix will use this space to explain the why and how of persuasion -the stock-and-trade of the politician. Would that they were better at their art!

This week's lesson begins with remarks made by the soon-to-be former President of the United States at the rededication of the AFL-CIO Building on January 8th:

"You [The AFL-CIO] have to be geared to the future of the economy. John, and Rich Trumpka and our Linda Chavez-Thompson-I have all these jokes I want to tell and my staff told me I could not tell any of them. (Laughter.)

"They say that I have to assume the appropriate role for a former President and I cannot say any of the things that I want to say, which would leave you howling in the aisle-[laughter]-and the only thing that could get me a headline in my increasing irrelevancy from my friends in the press. (Laughter and applause.) But just use your imagination. (Laughter.)" (Source)

What Mr. Clinton has committed here is praeteritio, the passing-over of a fact or subject to achieve a desired effect. The Soon-to-be Former President is making a serious speech and should not pause for humor at the expense of another, but he wants the audience to know that Mrs. Chavez and what she has done are incredibly funny. Being President "forces" Mr. Clinton to "pass over" the jokes and continue his speech.

Praeteritio is a common tool of persuasive speech. A skilled practitioner can ruin an opponent's reputation while seeming reluctant to do so. The formula for this device is:

Express reluctance to mention the subject-mention the subject-change the subject.

Example: I could discuss my opponent's habit of grossly underpaying his employees, but the topic tonight is defense spending. . . .

Related to praeteritio is occulatatio, which is the concealment of a subject by passing over it, and apophasis, in which one states something while seeming to deny it. All are forms of irony-the implying of a meaning that is the opposite of the one stated. The sophistication of these techniques is directly related to the amount left unsaid by their users: the more implied, the greater the effect.

Mr. Clinton could have said, ". . . our Linda-Chavez Thompson-several jokes come to mind, but I'll leave them to your imagination", but he did not. Rhetorix hates to draw attention to Mr. Clinton's unsophisticated use of praeteritio, so this column will end here.

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"...Praeteritio is a common tool of persuasive speech. A skilled practitioner can ruin an opponent's reputation while seeming reluctant to do so..."

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