You Ain't Just Whistling Dixie: How Carol Moseley-Braun Used Rhetorical Status to Change Jesse Helms' Tune

By Walls, Celeste M. | Western Journal of Communication, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

You Ain't Just Whistling Dixie: How Carol Moseley-Braun Used Rhetorical Status to Change Jesse Helms' Tune


Walls, Celeste M., Western Journal of Communication


ON MAY 6, 1993, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-2 to refuse to renew a design patent (2) for an organizational logo of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). After 14 years, the patent had just expired. Freshman Senator and Judiciary Committee member Carol Moseley-Braun opposed the legislation. The primary reason for her opposition to the extension of the patent was its emblem, which featured the confederate insignia.

The matter was all but forgotten until July 22, 1993 when Jesse Helms attached legislation for the design patent as Amendment 610 to former President Clinton's National Service Bill. He explained to the full Senate that the Judiciary Committee's previous action was "An unintended rebuke aimed at 24,000 ladies who belong to the United Daughters of the Confederacy who work together as unpaid volunteers at veteran's hospitals and many, many other places" (Congressional Record, 1993, S9251). With this, the Senate prepared to vote on a bill the passage of which would guarantee passage of Amendment 610.

Before the vote could take place, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, the first African American woman elected to the Senate, was pulled by her staffers out of Judiciary Committee hearings and notified that the United Daughters of the Confederacy's (UDC) request for patent renewal was being re-introduced as Amendment 610. To her surprise, it was about to be voted on in the full Senate. Moseley-Braun rushed to the main floor to try to stop the vote. There, the freshman senator led and won a floor fight against the amendment's main sponsor, Senator Jesse Helms, a tenured, institutional insider. Arguing that the patent was unnecessary, Moseley-Braun spoke against the measure. By the end of the debate, she had convinced a majority of her peers to vote with her against passage of Helms' amendment chiefly because the emblem featured the confederate flag.

Several researchers suggest that this should not have been the case (Asch, 1956; Moscovici, 1980; Turner, 1991b). Specifically, they argue that audience expectations as to her perceived credibility as a double minority speaker should have mitigated acceptance of her message. Moseley-Braun's support for a minority position (i.e., defeat of the amendment) and the combined immutable characteristics of her personal identity, (i.e., race and gender) should have reduced her rhetorical status in the Senate, which still is a predominately White and male institution. In turn, this reduced status should have intervened to attenuate her credibility and therefore, her persuasiveness. In short, Helms should have prevailed.

Against significant odds and the expectations of many observers, however, Moseley-Braun not only defeated Jesse Helms in the Senate that day, but she continues to be a force in U.S. politics. Clearly, the defeat of Helms' amendment was only the beginning. In this paper I argue that Moseley-Braun was able to lead the charge against passage of the Amendment 610 by adjusting not only her approach to the argument, but also by shifting the audience's perception of her credibility. She did so by transforming key characteristics thought to act as status reducers for double minority speakers into status enhancers. Carol Moseley-Braun was able to turn the tables on Jesse Helms by refusing to accept his negative characterization of her credibility as a speaker in the United States Senate.

One possible explanation for her success is provided by rhetorical status, an interactional communicative phenomena that suggests speakers and listeners reciprocally define their relative personal and social standing or position to one another in a given communication context. In short, rhetorical status asks why do speech and other modes of communication vary in their efficacy, their persuasiveness or power (Logue & Miller, 1995, 20)? To address this question, the concept of rhetorical status can be used to analyze speakers' efforts to shape and reshape their own and others' social and personal characteristics as one set of factors that bear on perceptions of speaker credibility. …

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