Presidents and Protesters: Political Rhetoric in the 1960s

By Theodore Otto Windt Jr. | Go to book overview

accountable for what they have said, all the while recognizing the ambiguity that is inherent in some uses of language and argument.


Conclusion

The basic principle upon which these chapters rest is: "Political discourse creates the framework within which political thought and action proceed."33 In other words, I take the public language, arguments, and rhetoric that people involved in politics use as a guide to their thought and action. The skeptic might say that such a position is to be expected of a rhetorician, of someone who has devoted much of his professional life to studying political discourse. The skeptic might add that political rhetoric, especially as used by officials in power, is merely a screen to mask real intentions, a soothing public relations set of gimmicks to fool the gullible, or a cynical manipulation of lies and half-truths to maintain power. For a professional rhetorician to respond to such beliefs may seem a special form of special pleading. Therefore, let me turn to the historian Michael H. Hunt and quote him at length as he states with remarkable clarity the position I share:

But such a skeptical view may be too clever by half. Public rhetoric is not simply a screen, tool, or ornament. It is also, perhaps even primarily, a form of communication, rich in symbols and mythology and closely constrained by certain rules. To be effective, public rhetoric must draw on values and concerns widely shared and easily understood by its audience. A rhetoric that ignores or eschews the language of common discourse on the central problems of the day closes itself off as a matter of course from any sizable audience, limiting its own influence. If a rhetoric fails to reflect the speaker's genuine views on fundamental issues, it runs the risk over time of creating false public expectations, and lays the basis for politically dangerous misunderstanding. If it indulges in blatant inconsistency, it eventually pays the price of diminished force and credibility. Public rhetoric is tainted evidence for the historian seeking a widely shared ideology only when it violates these rules and falls unpersuasively on the ears of its ostensible audience. Indeed, comparisons of public rhetoric with private statements, a sensitive test that cynics might justifiably insist on, suggest that the policy elite do recognize the cost of violating these rules and do generally observe them.34

It is this perspective that is taken in the chapters that follow.

The next two chapters concern President Kennedy's uses of crisis rhetoric during his administration, the issues he applied it to and the times when it was applied. President Kennedy's rhetoric de

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