I have held a political theory of rhetoric for many years and up until this point have never put it in print –as I was hoping before the last election my theory would be proven wrong.
It was not.
I believe human beings, at least the westernized version of which I am most familiar, are generally reactionary and not proactive creatures. Typically our actions are in response to something perceived as negative as opposed to being in anticipation of creating something positive. So, for example, human beings wait for a child to be kidnapped and murdered before they institute some new stricter legislation that may have curtailed this tragedy.
I find this reactionary principle at work when it comes to selecting the President of the United States, or the POTUS, as some of the kids are calling the office today. In my lifetime of political cognition, I have seen eight presidents come and go; yet if you count my political pre-cognition days, this number would be ten as I was about six months old when President Kennedy was shot.
Since Gerald Ford replaced the impeached Richard Nixon over the Watergate fiasco in 1974, I have found my Preferred President Reactionary Principle (PPRP) consistently at work over the last forty-three years. It seems the American public prefers a particular rhetorical style –and that style would be the most diametrically opposed to whoever the incumbent president to be at any given time.
Let us put PPRP to the test in my lifetime, shall we?
Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon in 1974 and ran for election in 1976. One might describe Ford’s rhetorical style as excessively boring, conventional and lacking wit or any hint of charisma. Remember WIN buttons? (Whip Inflation Now)…Ford is probably best known for this cheesy acronym. So who did the American public elect in reaction to the drab Ford that year? A somewhat charismatic -in a charming, innocent, “undrab” kind of way- unconventional outsider, a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia named Jimmy Carter. One would argue the exact rhetorical and political opposite of Ford.
Whereas Ford could put you to sleep within a few words of a sentence, Carter raised eyebrows with his southern drawl while at one time admitting to Playboy magazine that he has lusted after women in his heart.
Arguably Carter turned out to be one of the worst presidents in US history, yet that is not the point. We needed a good, down to earth Southern simpleton to save us from the big city corruption of insiders Nixon and the Ford who pardoned him of his crimes. However, voters did decide that southern charm was one thing though incompetent southern charm was quite another. After four years and a failed Iranian hostage crisis rescue later, we longed for some much needed eloquence and guidance as the whole southern boy thing wore out real fast: Welcome former actor and silver-tongued, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was the complete opposite of Carter in nearly every way –stylistically, politically and most important to PPRP, rhetorically. Eloquent and charismatic, Reagan was the wise grandpa we all wish we had in our lives and was deemed, “The Great Communicator” by some of his contemporaries. Love him or hate him politically, he was certainly an excellent statesman. Of course I will never forgive him for burying his head in the sand ostrich-style for many years during the AIDS crisis, yet one cannot deny the rhetorical dignity he brought to POTUS office, which waned a bit during a his last couple years in office when small hints of his Alzheimer’s became somewhat apparent.
After the Reagan years were completed, was it just coincidence that voters elected none other than the rhetorically challenged, quite uncharismatic, “naht gonna da it” George Bush Sr.? PPRP thinks not.
Are we beginning to see the pattern here? Bush Sr. was so rhetorically challenged that his incompetently uttered phrase, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” sealed his POTUS demise after only one term.
Now kids, can you tell me the rhetorical style of the next incoming president when applying the PPRP? Of course you can –someone charismatic, slick, eloquent and one who you might say was so smooth he could charm the dress off…well, he was charming indeed. Enter stage left, Bill Clinton, better known as Slick Willie by his adversaries.
This guy was good. He could sell snow balls to Eskimo’s (or is it “Inuit’s” now?) and any used clunker car on the lot. Of course his eloquence with the ladies was his biggest downfall and, as one of my students recently observed, he was the first president to be impeached over a blow job and a very poor blowie at that (Whoops…did that just hit your dress?).
Years later my very own daughter testified to his undeniable charm as she sat and listened to him speak at an engagement in Orange County, only to immediately come down after the address and hint at joining him to his next stop at UCLA. Apparently this suave man spits game to all and without prejudice.
So, what next? Enough with the charm already! We needed someone a bit more down-to-earth, rhetorically rough around the edges, while longing for the days of simplicity and southern comfort, so to speak: Enter George W. Bush.
During Bush’s first campaign in 2000, the consensus among many liberals was that he was an idiot, a barely literate simpleton in the vein of Chauncey Gardiner (look it up kids). Many of the greatest Bushisms date from those early days. “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?” Bush noted during a campaign stop in South Carolina, a couple of weeks before inviting a New Hampshire audience to imagine themselves in the shoes of a single mother “working hard to put food on your family.”
Perhaps my favorite is, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.”
Nothing like pulling out The Who lyric card amidst a brain fart. Oh how we misunderestimated the level of Bush’s rhetorical incompetence.
Yet for all his rhetorical snafus, unlike previous southern boy Jimmy Carter, Bush did have a simple enduring charm about him. And as PPRP would predict, after eight years of super smooth (Bill Clinton), we needed another eight of super rough to get us back to even, and so we did.
So what next? How about the smoothest, most articulate, sweet sounding, beautiful music to the ears rhetoric of any POTUS in history? Yes, enter Barack Obama. I remember shortly after he was elected listening to him give a speech and thought to myself just how inept W was in comparison. If Clinton was considered the smoothest, Obama just set the bar that much higher as he was smooth with a conscience and could keep things where they belong, so to speak, at least to the best of our knowledge.
And, now, this is why I knew circa August, 2016 who our next president was going to be. My original PPRP was going with overweight ruffian and overall school yard bully Chris Christie up until that point he was officially “Trumped” by the single biggest rhetorical blithering bully in US history. PPRP informs us that the stronger the rhetorical trait, the more extreme we must go in the opposite direction as a corrective measure in response -and extreme we did. Perhaps the biggest problem with Obama was he was just that good that it warranted a follow up rhetorical style that was just that bad in equal measure.
If you are a Trump supporter this is welcome news. If not, the good news is PPRP boldly predicts a reactionary vote in 2020 and it will likely not be the bombastic divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump. However the one aspect of PPRP must take into account is the influential factor of incumbency. Since 1976 our only presidents who have only served one term were either in the rhetorically challenged (Bush Sr.) or politically inept (Carter) categories, which are both the case with our current POTUS, IMHO; therefore my theory predicts one term and our current president will be replaced with a Clinton/Obama-like mixture of charm and sweetness, in the same way Carter was replaced in one term by Reagan and Bush Sr. replaced in one term by Slick Willie.
The question is, who is it that will be the smooth and inclusive rhetorician that will attract our strong desire to vote against the volatile rhetorical temperament of the current POTUS?
I can’t tell you that though this I can tell you, I can’t wait.
And I hope now my theory once again proves right.