Peggy Noonan, writer (part II)…

Check out this bit misunderstanding (or misdirection?) from the author of the single dumbest line written for a president in the past 50 years (“Read my lips, no new taxes.”):

Nothing is more beautiful, more elevating, more important in a speech than fact and logic. People think passionate and moving oratory is the big thing, but it isn’t. The hard true presentation of facts followed by a declaration of how we must deal with those facts is the key. Without a recitation of hard data, high rhetoric seems insubstantial, vaguely disingenuous, merely dramatic. Without a logical case to support rhetoric has nothing to do. It’s like icing without cake.

Once the facts and the declaration are put forward it’s fine to use eloquence if you can muster it, and ringing oratory too if it will help people to see things as you do, and help them lean toward taking the course of action you recommend.

So to sum up: Moving oratory is what you use to underscore a point. It is not in itself the point.

George W. Bush is being told by some pundits and others that ringing oratory is what he most needs in his State of the Union address tomorrow night. That is exactly wrong.

This column by Peggy Noonan has been widely blogged. I do not care to discuss her comments about Bush and Iraq (outside the interests of this blog). Instead, I want to focus your attention on rhetorical theory. It must be important because Noonan leads with it–four whole paragraphs!

Peggy Noonan should know better–especially after her error in the 1988 convention speech. That read-my-lips line was all style and no substance. And that was exactly the (policy) point: hide the true nature of the economic reality in bluster (I realize I’m equating bluster and eloquence here). It “worked.” Many political scientists credit the line with helping to elect George H. W. Bush. And many of those same scholars will tell you that it helped get him unelected four years later.

Rhetoric is about far more than style and eloquence, and if Noonan understood this she might not have made that error in 1988. It is also about matching style and content to the situation by, among other things, an appropriate balance of appeals–logic (logos), emotion (pathos), and character (ethos). For a better understanding of what rhetoric is, please read my definition.

To persuade, hearts and minds must be moved. Eloquence is not something pasted on to discourse; it is always present in varying degrees. If President Bush wants to persuade us that war with Iraq is the right policy (I have no idea if it is or not), he’d be well advised to take a lesson from Shakespeare’s Henry in act IV, scene iii of Henry V. No one marches off to war with just a “hard true presentation of facts.” We need facts that develop reasons (logos) included in an argument based on character and emotion

Seeing as how Noonan is herself an excellent stylist, and often displays flights of enviable eloquence, I’m having a difficult time believing that she believes what she wrote. “Nothing is more beautiful, more elevating, more important in a speech than fact and logic.” (???) Not even Aristotle, the great promoter of logos over ethos and pathos, believed this.

What’s she really up to?

Noonan believes rhetoric is substituting for the facts in regard to the Bush administration’s tight-lip policy. This tight-lip policy is itself rhetoric. A question I would ask my students: Is it good rhetoric, and will it “work”?

UPDATE (10:55 a.m.): The Ombudsgod disagrees with my characterization of Noonan’s read-my-lips line…and he knows his Shakespeare!