Why Presidents Give Speeches Anyway (Part Two of Three)

Yesterday we established that New Yorker writer Ezra Klein’s several-thousand-word observation that individual presidential speeches don’t change the world was little more than a magnificent grasp of the obvious.

Today, let’s be a little more generous to Klein, who was only reporting the “insights” of a George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. “Like many political scientists, Edwards is an empiricist,” Klein writes. “He deals in numbers and tables and charts ….”

Propeller head Edwards went on to deliver a presentation titled, “Presidential Rhetoric: What Difference Does It Make?” In it, he made a study of President Reagan’s rhetoric, and found that it wasn’t Reagan’s speeches that convinced everyone that tax cuts were a good idea. No, Reagan was merely the beneficiary of trends in public opinion, “rather than their instigator.”

“As one could imagine,” Klein quotes Edwards as writing, “I was a big hit with the auditorium full of dedicated scholars of rhetoric.”

Now it may be true that rhetoric scholars attach an outsize importance to rhetoric. I don’t know. I drink with practitioners of rhetoric, who can and must keep things in perspective, if only to manage the expectations of their client.

In fact, among speechwriters and other professional communicators, the problem isn’t their overestimation of the power of rhetoric, but that of their clients, who need to be reminded endlessly that their having said a thing doesn’t equal the audience having heard it, let alone believed it.

“Edwards’ views are no longer considered radical in political-science circles, in part because he has marshalled so much evidence in support of them.”

But mostly because he has presented such “evidence” as a flash of blinding insight—and gotten a fancy New Yorker writer to do the same.

They can’t fool us. But their ability to impress others—at least, the editors of The New Yorker—should teach us something about how people misperceive the purpose and the power of speeches and other communication.

But what? I’ll think about that tonight and get back to you in the morning. —DM

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