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Swimming in Rhetoric

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Sam Leith, former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, novelist, and contributor to the Wall Street Journal and other publications, is cheeky, talented, smart, and a fine and easy writer, intoxicated by words and the way we arrange them to sell, persuade, praise, explain, attack. In Words Like Loaded Pistols, he sets out to share his enthusiasm for rhetoric, and, with only an occasional misfire, he succeeds admirably, in large part because of his unflagging good nature and offbeat sense of humor.

“Explaining rhetoric to a human being,” he writes, “is, or should be, like explaining water to a fish.” In both cases, explanations aren’t really necessary. We swim in rhetoric from the moment we turn on the news until we log off at night, and the whole time there’s someone making a rhetorical pitch, trying to sell us something.

Rhetoric “isn’t an academic discipline or the preserve of professional orators,” Leith writes. “It’s right here, right now, in your argument with the insurance company, your plea to the waitress for a table near the window, or your entreaties to your jam-faced kiddies to eat their damn veggies.”

True enough, although in the U.S. it would probably be something other than jam. Nor, despite the comfortable way he eases us into his subject, is he really interested in discussing insurance, kids, or veggies. His intention is to analyze and instruct us in the way the world’s movers and shakers—among them Milton’s Satan, Cicero, Lincoln, Churchill, Hitler, Martin Luther King, Obama—have used rhetoric for achieving their ends. Each of these figures is given a chapter-long section (for no good reason, all in italics) as a “Champion of Rhetoric,” within discussions of what he names as the five parts of rhetoric—Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery.

Aristotle, he tells us, divided Invention into three lines of argument. “Thanks in part to my constitutional childishness, they have always sounded to me like the names by which the Three Musketeers really should have been known: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos,” Leith writes. “These three fellows are the absolute bedrock of written and spoken persuasion.” Ethos establishes the speaker’s bona fides and connection with the audience. Logos is the attempt to influence them through reason. And Pathos is intended to stir them emotionally.

For an address that exemplifies these principles, Leith reaches back to 1952 and Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, given in response to charges that he’d been accepting money and gifts, accusations that endangered his place on the Eisenhower ticket. “Long before President Nixon met his Waterloo over the Watergate burglary, he escaped from another tight spot with a magisterial speech, at the heart of which was a nakedly cheesy pathos appeal.”

The star of that appeal was a puppy—sent as a gift to Nixon’s daughters by a supporter in Texas—“a little cocker spaniel dog. … black and white, spotted. And our little girl Tricia, the six-year-old, named it ‘Checkers.’ And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”

“No sooner had these words been uttered,” writes Leith, “than America as one melted into a puddle of love for Nixon, his wife, his adorable little daughters, and itty-bitty waggy-tailed Checkers.” The introduction of the puppy was “a stone cold stroke of brilliance.”

The Checkers speech shows how a masterful rhetorician, very much in tune with his times, can achieve his objectives with words. The pistol was loaded and primed, the aim perfect, the bullets sent unerringly home. (That sentence, incidentally, is a tricolon, one of the author’s favorite rhetorical figures.)

But although Leith cites the speech as a rhetorical masterpiece, the reader might wonder why he’d intersperse his analysis with jarring words like “cheesy” or a rhetorically out-of-place reference to Nixon’s “creepy smile” or as “Tricky Dick.” Ad hominem? Not quite that. Constitutional childishness?

Perhaps. It might also be a matter of literary-world realism. Using words like “magisterial,” “masterful,” and “brilliance” when discussing Richard Nixon will inevitably provoke a Pavlovian reaction among those—many of whom buy, discuss, and review books—whose Nixon-hatred is embedded in their DNA. In another place, Leith writes of “dog whistle boo words” that provoke such responses. “Richard Nixon” are two of those words.

So are “Satan,” “that silver tongued devil,” and “Adolf Hitler.” Leith’s is the Satan created by Milton, who “gave Satan the rhetorical chops he deserves,” and the Satan from a 1967 film, “Bedazzled.” Nothing here to give offense; no dog whistle boo words; something for moviegoers helping to lighten the rhetorical load; and much for those surviving lovers of one of the signal achievements in literary history, an extraordinary melding of poetry with rhetoric.

And Hitler? “Applying the praise word ‘champion’ to Adolf Hitler feels a bit odd, and I don’t wish to be needlessly provocative.” But, Leith continues, we have a duty to understand what it was that allowed him to put “his evil intentions … so horribly into effect.” Historians tell us that it was the right time, the right place, and luck. But it was also “his brilliance as an orator.”

Leith sums it up: “Strive though theorists have since ancient times to naturalize the connection between oratory and civic virtue, Hitler is a good instance of the extent to which they have failed. Rhetoric’s effectiveness is, in the final analysis, independent of its moral content or that of its users.” 

Fortunately, Churchill was able to infuse his oratory with “moral content,” and its role in carrying England through World War II has been widely celebrated. Leith reminds us of the extraordinary effort he put into making that rhetoric work, although Leith, perhaps like many of his generation (he was born the year Richard Nixon resigned), is less than enamored of Churchill’s rhetorical “high style.” But the moral content of his work is something else.

Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Obama are also treated as speakers of high moral purpose. Leith praises the Gettysburg address, calls the “I Have a Dream” speech “the pinnacle of twentieth-century American rhetoric,” and in his section on Obama, nicely titled “The Audacity of Trope,” he hears in Obama’s speeches an echo of both Lincoln and King.

Obama, he writes, derives much of his strength as orator from the Bible. “The language of the King James version of the Bible echoes behind the strophic structure and parallelisms of Obama’s speeches.”The Bible in American oratory comes down through the Founding Fathers. But it also comes down through “the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. When Obama sounds like the Bible, he doesn’t just sound like the Bible. He sounds like the Bible channeled through Martin Luther King.”

Obama, Leith points out, was also heavily influenced by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, from whose sermons he took the title of his book, The Audacity of Hope. But that’s an influence the White House doesn’t talk about these days.

Leith’s discussion of Obama’s oratory centers on his 2008 election-night speech in Chicago’s Grant Park and his inaugural address in Washington. But since then the big oratorical guns have gone silent. As Leith points out, the high rhetoric of politics can produce an anti-rhetoric opposition. And it may be Obama’s task this time around to square the rhetoric with the reality of his record, to prove that he’s something more than what Hillary Clinton once called him, a man who just “gives speeches.”

Leith’s interest in politics tends to overshadow some of the best features of his book, his discussion of the origins and formal development of rhetoric as a discipline, for instance, and the definitions of rhetorical figures, which he works into his text and includes in a glossary.

There’s chiasmus, as in the “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” the Kennedy/Sorenson ABBA pattern. Or better, Dr. Johnson’s verdict to an aspiring author: “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.”

Then there’s zeugma, “a tricksy figure in which several clauses are governed by a single word. … Flanders and Swann, in their song ‘Have Some Madeira, M’Dear,’ really go to town on this figure: ‘He had slyly inveigled her up to his flat/To view his collection of stamps/ And he said as he hastened to put out the cat/The wine, his cigars and the lamps…’”

Leith also pays tribute to the person standing just behind the curtain—the Unknown Speechwriter. Every politician has one, and a president can have a dozen or so. In White House Ghosts, the best book yet about White House speechwriters, Robert Schlesinger writes that LBJ’s speechwriters couldn’t write to his speaking strengths. On one occasion, LBJ said of their efforts: “The goddamn draft they’ve given me wouldn’t make chickens cackle if you waved it at ’em in the dark.”

That’s the job of the speechwriter—to make the chickens cackle. That’s not to say, unless you’re working for a complete dolt, that you try to put words in the politician’s mouth. As Leith says, “the speechwriter aims to write what the speaker thinks, in the most eloquent terms in which the speaker might plausibly express it.”

Leith singles out several speechwriters who have accomplished just that—Ronald Millar for Margaret Thatcher, and Peggy Noonan, from whose memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution, he quotes at some length. Noonan knew how to make the chickens cackle, and when necessary, to make grown men cry. Her work with Ronald Reagan on the famous “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech, delivered at Normandy on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, has earned her a permanent spot in the speechwriters’ hall of fame.

To conclude this discussion of words, here are some of the author’s last ones, a fine ending for his book: “People have been talking each other in and out of fights and in and out of bed since the first syllable formed on the first ape-like prehistoric lip. The total corpus of everything they’ve ever said is the object of study: the patterns that obtain across centuries are testament to our commonality; the ceaseless variation testament to the power and elasticity of invention. Rhetoric is inexhaustible.”

John R. Coyne Jr. is a former White House speechwriter and co-author, with Linda Bridges, of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement.

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