Swimming in Rhetoric

Article excerpt

Swimming in Rhetoric by JOHN R. COYNE JR. Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric From Aristotle To Obama, Sam Leith, Basic Books, 312 pages

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 die 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 shakersamong them Milton's Satan, Cicero, Lincoln, Churchill, Hitier, 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 me names by which the Three Musketeers really should have been known: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos," Leith writes. "These tiiree 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 mat exemplifies these principles, Leith reaches back to 1952 and Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech, given in response to charges that hed 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 sixyear-old, named it 'Checkers' And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, mat regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it."

"No sooner had mese 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 wim words. The pistol was loaded and primed, the aim perfect, the bullets sent unerringly home. (That sentence, incidentally, is a tricolori, 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. …