Presidential campaigns offer rhetorical contrast

On Wednesday I watched North Dakota Governor Burgum’s speech announcing his candidacy for the presidency, followed shortly thereafter by former Vice President Pence launching his campaign in Iowa.

Let me be clear: Given his political views, as a Democrat I would not vote for Burgum. Moreover, I don’t think he has a realistic chance of being nominated. Nevertheless, allow me to put on my hat as a communication scholar and make a few nonpolitical observations.

First, Burgum has a pleasing rhetorical style, one standing in clear contrast to Trump’s bombastic discourse and the attack-oriented approach taken by other would-be nominees. In many ways Burgum sounded like President Jimmy Carter. He used his life’s experiences growing up in a small town to suggest why he could help the country by bringing many of those values to the national political scene.

Second, the substance and tone of Burgum’s rhetoric made him come off as highly believable, genuine and authentic. Normally, after a few minutes, I tune out when others announce their candidacy. Candidate political views and policies don’t account for why I do this. Rhetorical style does explain it.

Let me offer another example documenting the value of this rhetorical approach.

While forceful and carefully worded, Pence’s speech on Wednesday–immediately following Governor Burgum’s — was overly-scripted, clearly strategic, robotic, mechanically paced and far too smooth to come across as authentic. It reminded me of an argument I advanced almost three years ago in several newspapers.

What I suggested then was that, as a communication scholar, I found many dangerous consequences directly resulting from President Donald Trump’s messages. However, I argued that we now must analyze the rhetoric of Trump’s running mate, Vice President Mike Pence.

To be politically transparent: I believe Pence should be credited for having the wisdom to choose the Constitution, placing it above Trump’s attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. In addition, Pence frequently provided a much needed rhetorical relief and balance to Trump’s bellicose style, often diffusing the President’s extreme statements by giving softer and more tolerant responses.

Nevertheless, as evidenced by his speech on Wednesday, Pence is one of the most frustrating, slippery, obsequious and evasive political communicators I have observed. Admittedly, he has a moderating tone and never uses ad hominem arguments that viciously attack the media or his opponents. However, it is these qualities that obscure the rhetorical significance and impact of Pence’s discourse.

Pence’s delivery style is unique, making it hard for reporters and political opponents to interrupt and stop him; he has a penchant for nonstop talking without taking a breath, rendering it nearly impossible to question what he says and hold him accountable — something he probably learned as a radio commentator.

Watching both Burgum and Pence on Wednesday was important, providing a clear moral to the story clear. As I have argued in numerous op-eds, using a “rhetorical” perspective to analyze events and speeches is instructive and not inherently nor necessarily “political.”

This is something voters should keep in mind when they assess the viability of those aspiring to become President of the United States.

Ernest A. Sharpe Centennial Professor Emeritus, Moody College of Communication, The University of Texas at Austin, specializing in political rhetoric.


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