Our candidates are far from orators

The candidates need a refresher in classical rhetorical concepts.

Trent M. Kays

Like many Americans, I watched the presidential debate last Wednesday evening with a keen eye for critique. It’s often suggested that people who’ve decided on a candidate are the only ones who watch debates. I think that suggestion is misguided, yet I already know for whom I’m voting, and I still watched.

In many ways, the debates are a chance for the candidates to show off their oratory skills, knowledge of the issues and audience awareness. But, these debates are not scripted in the same way as a speech or other prominent speaking event. This is partly due to the willingness to believe our presidential candidates can remember every detail they need in order to make a coherent but complicated argument. In other words, we are willing to believe the absurd.

The absurd and the American election cycle seem to mutually exist. We hear haphazard arguments, sound bites and blatant lies on our favorite news stations. It becomes difficult to distinguish what is a truth and what is a lie. By the time the debates begin, we’ve been fed a steady diet of propaganda, which lodges itself in our memories. Despite this, we still watch the debates.

There isn’t a more awkward space in which to present your argument than on an empty stage under hot lights. It’s uncomfortable, and it seems this choice, a rhetorical one, is rooted in the belief that we can put our candidates on the spot. Much like deer in headlights, the candidates stare at a darkened audience through an often powerless moderator. Seemingly, they speak more to themselves than the broader audience.

While watching presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama debate, I couldn’t help but notice how polished and powerful the former appeared compared to the latter. Indeed, Obama seemed uneasy and like he was searching for replies to Romney’s barrage. Conversely, Romney seemed like a rabid hound barking at an invisible fence separating him from the president. The perception that was established is that Romney is assertive and Obama is defensive. I don’t believe this is true, but it is the perception.

This is not to say both candidates didn’t score hits and have misses. They both worked hard to make their arguments, but the odd belief these arguments can be delivered without a cheat sheet is baffling. Of course the candidates stumble in some responses; they’re trying to remember them.

This call to memory isn’t new. In “De Oratore,” Cicero argues that after a style is applied to an argument, the speaker must guard it in his memory and deliver it effectively. Yet, we live in a different time than Cicero. We no longer have to commit to memory large sets of facts in order to make an argument. We can look them up. We can outline our arguments and pull from various sources in real time to make them effective. So, why do these orations in the form of debates still
persist?

Conceivably it is the belief in the classical Greek and Roman concepts of an enlightened society. We want to see our elected leaders verbally duel in front of millions of people and see who comes out with the smallest scars. Though, I’m fairly certain Cicero wouldn’t be impressed with any of our current elected leaders. The way elected leaders debate would make any scholar of rhetoric cringe. The debates are often filled with hyperbole, which Cicero suggests is something to be avoided. Moreover, the current debate setup is not how discourse arises in the world.

The most interesting aspect of last Wednesday’s debate was the sudden fame of Big Bird. Romney said he would cut funding to PBS, and thus Big Bird would be no more. Quite an outcry ensued, yet that was only one part of the entire debate, and the most useless. Romney’s argument about why he’d get rid of PBS didn’t help him much either. His argument being he would cut unnecessary programs to help balance the budget. This argument did not sit well with anyone who had children, a calculator or could do basic math.

Indeed, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famed scientist, tweeted: “Cutting PBS support (0.012 percent of budget) to help balance the federal budget is like deleting text files to make room on your 500Gig hard drive.” This is why the rhetorical positioning of contemporary debates doesn’t work anymore. I would like to think Romney would better understand his own argument if he had access to real-time statistics on the debate stage.

Thanks to Romney, Big Bird seemingly became a trope overnight. Big Bird now means something it once did not, and in the digital future, there’s no turning back. Things now spread like uninhibited viruses through infants, and Romney will forever be associated with his Big Bird gaffe. Much like all speech, once it is released, it can never return to the speaker. It is gone to be interpreted by the audience.

Rhetorically, this is the danger of all speech and writing.

Both candidates are due for a reading of Cicero, and, hopefully, they can learn from their mistakes, their slouchiness or rabidness, their stammering or slow uptake and spar as true orators. However, I may hope for too much.

Either our elected leaders need to become eloquent orators, or we need to change how we rhetorically position our debates. What we have isn’t cutting it anymore.