Rhetorical Recap: Good Speech, Bad Timing

Kirsten Gillibrand Presidential Candidacy Announcement Speech, (outside of) Trump International Hotel and Tower, Manhattan, NY, March 24, 2019.

Of all the days for Attorney General Barr to release his summary of the Mueller Report, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand could not have wanted March 24. That news all but eliminated coverage of her announcement event. Who could have predicted such a media wipeout on a Sunday?

Gillibrand carried on, as befit her theme, “Brave Wins.”

Brave meaning, especially, coming straight at Trump.

Gillibrand began with a striking characterization of the Declaration of Independence as a conversation opener and a more familiar one of the Constitution as a living document. Then she took an unusual turn to a third foundational text, the national anthem. The New York Senator noted that it ends in a question: “the home of the brave?” In her reading, we American conversationalists are continuously dared to answer it in the affirmative.

(Pedantry requires me to point out that while the first and by far most commonly sung stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” does indeed end with a question mark, the next three stanzas switch to exclamation points. Noting that too would have completed her framing device and theme setter brilliantly. She still gets an A for attention-grabbing originality.)

In yet another unusual move Gillibrand anthropomorphized “brave” and called for Team Brave to wage battle against Team Fear:

Brave isn’t winning right now.

Brave doesn't spread hate or bully the vulnerable. Brave doesn't put greed and self-interest over millions of lives. Brave doesn't cower behind lies and walls. Brave doesn't pit people against one another. That's what fear does.

This President has tried to reduce America to its smallest self.

Her voice cutting, her hands chopping the hair, Gillibrand all but roused the crowd to storm the entrance to the Trump International Hotel, “a shrine to greed, division, and vanity.”

She praised the Parkland students, the DREAMers, sexual assault survivors, and those in attendance as the Team Brave vanguard (my words) who inspired her to run for president. Her autobiographical passage followed. She valorized her grandmother and mother. She offered her four victories in a red Congressional district as tacit evidence of her national electability. Her brave votes while in Congress include opposing the bank bailout; her leadership credentials ranged from legislation to compensate the 9/11 victims to taking on the Pentagon to end sexual assaults in the military.

She mentioned none of the pivotal men in her political history. Notably absent from her narrative was Erastus Corning II, a surrogate father of sorts who was mayor of Albany NY for 41 years. Also her father Douglas Rutnik, a lobbyist and lawyer. There are other men in this history as well (Al D’Amato, Al Franken), but Corning and Rutnik especially matter because Gillibrand has also been a lobbyist and is a New York elected official. Her husband and sons, part of her personal history, joined her on stage after she completed her speech.

Gillibrand’s issue positions put her on the left-liberal band of the spectrum where most of the 2020 Democratic candidates have placed themselves. One contrast concerns the problem of greed: where Elizabeth Warren would solve it with “real structural change” and Bernie Sanders with “revolution,” Gillibrand spoke of mandated financial transparency in campaigning and lobbying. She has set an example and further emphasized her contrast with Trump by disclosing the past ten years of her tax returns, and, like many other Democrats, forswearing funds from corporate PACs.

Machiavelli invoked Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune, in his masterpieces The Prince and The Discourses. He wrote that Fortuna split influence over an individual leader’s and a city-state’s fate with what he called Virtù, which translates today as a combination of willpower and, well, bravery. The goddess did not smile on Kirsten Gillibrand on March 24. Still, in tying her candidacy so thoroughly to a character contrast between herself and Donald Trump she has set herself apart from the prevailing approach; previous announcement speeches have castigated him to be sure, but put their emphases elsewhere.

We will see what Gillibrand’s heretofore unique take on the 2020 race and her virtù bring in the months to come.

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