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Mum's the Word


When I read the transcript of today’s White House press briefing with Scott McClellan, I knew someone was going to pull this “McClellan’s a rhetorical genius” bit. Nonsense. People did the same thing with Ari F., and I call foul. Dogged question avoidance does not make one the second coming of Cicero.

In fact, from The New Republic last March (subscription required):

Fleischer was in this sense the perfect Bush press secretary. His ability to prevaricate and dodge, without betraying himself through physical or verbal tics, represented a kind of genius. Alas, what came so easily to Fleischer utterly eludes McClellan. If the two of them ever sat down at a poker table, Fleischer would probably walk away with all of McClellan’s money and the shirt off his back.

Again, nonsense. In many of Fleischer’s most heated press exchanges, he reverted to the exact same rote repetition thing McClellan does here. Both men do a perfectly functional and transparent job of stonewalling the White House press corps. Wouldn’t a true rhetorical genius be so slick and insinuating about his point that you wouldn’t even recognize it was just the same thing with different wrapping paper?

Once you’ve decided, like McClellan did today, that your rhetorical strategy is going to be repeating some jumbled combination of the phrases “question relates” “ongoing investigation” and “no comment,” how much intellectual energy does it take to do that over and over? I mean, come on. A competent AI programmer, given a vocabulary of approximately 40 words, could have made a digital Scott McClellan in 10 minutes flat.

Actual McClellan responses:

  • Again, David, this is a question relating to a ongoing investigation, and you have my response related to the investigation. And I don’t think you should read anything into it other than: We’re going to continue not to comment on it while it’s ongoing.
  • And if you will recall, I said that, as part of helping the investigators move forward on the investigation, we’re not going to get into commenting on it. That was something I stated back near that time as well.
  • Well, those overseeing the investigation expressed a preference to us that we not get into commenting on the investigation while it’s ongoing. And that was what they requested of the White House. And so I think in order to be helpful to that investigation, we are following their direction.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

P.S.: None of this is to knock Messirs McClellan or Fleischer, by the way. I’m sure they’re both perfectly fine men. And they may even be rhetorical geniuses in the right context. But the skill of the White House press secretary, it seems to me, isn’t rhetoric. It’s message discipline. Completely different ballgame.

July 11, 2005 / Uncategorized


I feel like this is a modern art installation waiting to happen… a White House press room podium staffed by ELIZA.

I’m fascinated that you think my post makes McClellan seem “the second coming of Cicero.” From that, and the balance of your post, I think you may be operating with a limited definition of rhetoric. You might check here for a list of four possibilities:

Rhetoric, among other things, is a practical art of persuasion (positive and negative). From the point of view I use in my post, rhetoric as McClellan uses it is the art of stopping discourse through message discipline. And he does just that. He just kills it. That was his purpose. He achieved it through exactly the rhetorical maneuvers you discuss here.

If it works, it’s good rhetoric.

Message discipline isn’t a different ball game. Aristotle’s _On Rhetoric_ is nothing if not a treatise on message discipline.

That’s one of the hardest ideas my students wrestle with: that good (i.e. it works) rhetoric can also be insipid, that it isn’t always (nor necessarily needs to be) the sublime.

I completely understand your frustration with my post. And I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m simply operating here with a different POV because it suits my rhetorical intentions, which, BTW, have nothing to do with praising McClellan.

Thanks for the link. Please visit my comments. I’m glad to have found your site!


Victory might be the ultimate or minimal goal of rhetoric, but the quality of rhetoric is evaluated according to its ability to teach, delight, and move. But Matt hits on a more basic quality of rhetoric that McClellan’s answers lack: from Aristotle through Cicero, Quintillian, and the Church fathers, the most essential aspect of rhetoric is that it is an art that hides itself. This is why Cicero compares the art of the orator with that of the actor: the actor needs to make his speech appear smooth and to a certain extent, unstudied. When we identify rhetoric’s obvious techniques and intent, it loses its charm and appeal. That’s why the press meta-comments (“Scott, this is ridiculous”) are actually quite striking and effective.

In general, I think the Press Corps gets the better of McClellan here, since they make it obvious that he’s just stonewalling and do get him in some pretty tight rhetorical traps. My favorite is towards the end, when a questioner walks McClellan back through his claims: after he and GWB made comments on the investigation, one or more of the investigators asked The White House not to comment on it, which is why McC can’t answer questions — and McClellan says he can’t comment, because it’s part of an investigation! Hilarious.

Matt… So does that mean I used bad rhetoric? 🙂

Well, yes.

Is 35 times too many? Would one time have signaled a better rhetorical performance? That’s interesting to think about. My evaluation rests on what happened: He stopped the discourse. Could he have done it “better.” Depending upon what one means by that, the answer is certainly “yes.”


I have no romantic illusions about my discipline. Who won? McClellan. He achieved his perlocutionary intention. The press did not. No one cares that he was put on the spot. That’s already yesterday’s news.

My concern is far less with McClellan than with the press. My evoking his skill is a rhetorical maneuver in itself. While it has sparked this interesting exchange, and led me to this interesting weblog, it’s really only a route to the point.

One of the things I love about rhetoric is how many things it really is and how different it is through the ages based upon the people and cultures that employ it. I also love how constant it is 🙂

Two thoughts:

1) McClellan’s job, and the purpose of whatever rhetorical skills he employs, isn’t just to stop the discourse in the press room. It’s also to stop or at least slow the story. This is what makes his job different from Karl Rove’s lawyer’s. When Rove’s lawyer dropped that “never knowingly disclosed classified information” line, he successfully defended his client, but what was effectively a negative admission to the press became a huge news story. Since his back-and-forth was the first headline of today’s Times, I doubt we could call his performance perlocutionarily successful at all.

2) In general, I’m less likely than I think you are to collapse the rhetorical tradition and the theory of speech acts. All speech may have a rhetorical element, but the kind of speech involved in law, politics, preaching, and other kinds of explicitly and formal persuasive settings has a different character, because (among other things) the relationship with the audience is different. Furthermore, there are distinct differences within this field based on context. Clinton’s legalistic maneuverings during his impeachment trial were a legal success but a political nadir: it let the opposition paint a picture. If the Democrats can spin the GOP’s plain-folks image to make them appear sneaky, secretive, evasive, and underhanded, then McClellan is hardly doing his job.

Tim re:

1. Agreed. But rhetoric is always open to re-evaluation. It was today’s headline. But will it be tomorrow’s? I’m wondering if he succeeds in the end. I suspect he might. But I could be wrong.

2. I’m working on an essay now about accounting for the role of rhetoric in the illocutionary act. So, yes.

BTW, on a lighter note, I once wrote a humorous academic essay (an oxymoron?) comparing Clinton’s rhetoric in his testimony (re: Monica…depends on what the meaning of is is) with Richard III. The title: Now is the Winter of Our Discomfiture Made an Odious Bummer by this Son of Hope 🙂

I’ve added you to the blogroll. Later…

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