Loose Lips: Broadcast and Socially Mediated Political Rhetoric and the Sinking of the 2012 Senatorial Campaigns of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock

By Spurlock, Jefferson | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Loose Lips: Broadcast and Socially Mediated Political Rhetoric and the Sinking of the 2012 Senatorial Campaigns of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock


Spurlock, Jefferson, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


There was a time after the 2012 U.S. Senatorial primary elections in Missouri and Indiana that many thought Republicans Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock would win their general elections in November--Akin in Missouri and Mourdock in Indiana. Those thoughts, though, were short-lived.

In August, Akin tried to explain his stance on abortion to a St. Louis television reporter by saying, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down ... I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child" (Eligon & Schwirtz, 2012). Legitimate rape? Is there such a thing? That is what many Missouri voters were asking themselves as they pondered, "Did Akin really say that?" Two months later, Mourdock appeared on a televised debate and answered a question regarding abortion in cases of rape or incest. He said, "I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen" (Republican Candidate Defends ..., 2012)--another rhetorical snafu that had Hoosier residents scratching their heads.

Akin's and Mourdock's comments went viral on social media as well as in broadcast and newspaper reports resulting in mixed opinions from the public (both candidates later apologized for their statements). Yet, the two men remained in their respective races.

The phrase, "Loose lips might sink ships," was coined by the U.S. Office of War Information in its attempt "to limit the possibility of people inadvertently giving useful information to enemy spies" during World War II (The Phrase Finder). Since then, this loose-tongued rhetoric has come to take on various meanings, including that of irresponsible speech. Mistakes seldom arise when sound bites, without scripts, are uttered on television or radio. These statements do not become misquotes in newspapers. They are the actual vocal transmissions of those speaking. They are not manipulated utterances.

It is often difficult for those who have made these statements to correct themselves without notice. Once broadcast audiences have heard a remark, the words typically are etched in stone. Even when the deliverer of the message insists, "What I meant to say," he finds it a problem to recant and fully recover.

This essay examines the campaigns of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock and argues that the broadcast and socially mediated rhetoric of both candidates cost the two their respective elections.

Past Performances

Over the years, speeches, interviews, and other rhetoric have contributed to the downfall of prominent politicians. In 1973, President Richard Nixon went on national television and uttered the words, "I'm not a crook," when referring to his role in the Watergate scandal and allegations that he profited from his public service (Kilpatrick, 1973). Nixon resigned from office before impeachment proceedings could begin. When his successor Gerald Ford gave Nixon "a preemptive pardon for any and all of his Watergate crimes" (Fulsom, 2012, p. 168), the former president was off the hook for good. However, that action cost Ford dearly. Many Americans insisted the pardon "ended Ford's chances for re-election to the presidency in 1976" (The History Place). Jimmy Carter defeated Ford in the next election.

In 1987, Colorado Senator Gary Hart was the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. When the media confronted Hart with allegations of womanizing, he told them, "Follow me around ... it will be boring" ("The Gary Hart Story"). When The Miami Herald accepted Hart's invitation and discovered that he had spent the night with model Donna Rice, the candidate dropped out of the race ("Gary Hart and Donna Rice").

One year after Hart's departure, another candidate seeking the Democratic presidential nomination made a rhetorical blunder that led to a negative outcome. …

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