Commentary Magazine


Topic: political rhetoric

Conventional Rhetoric

Listening to three days of the Republican Convention, I was struck by some very effective speeches (Governor Susana Martinez, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio), one shall we say idiosyncratic speech (Clint Eastwood), and the nominee’s own, which if not a modern-day Cross of Gold was certainly more than adequate.

The best line, undoubtedly, was, “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family.” In one sentence it contrasted President Obama’s unpleasant narcissism and Romney’s instinctive self-deprecation, Obama’s utter disregard (even after the severe rebuke of the 2010 election) of what the country wanted him to work on in order to pursue his own personal agenda, and Romney’s concentration on the ailing American economy and the impending fiscal crisis. It reminded me a bit of what is surely the best pun in American political history, Gerald Ford’s “I’m a Ford not a Lincoln.”

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Listening to three days of the Republican Convention, I was struck by some very effective speeches (Governor Susana Martinez, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio), one shall we say idiosyncratic speech (Clint Eastwood), and the nominee’s own, which if not a modern-day Cross of Gold was certainly more than adequate.

The best line, undoubtedly, was, “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family.” In one sentence it contrasted President Obama’s unpleasant narcissism and Romney’s instinctive self-deprecation, Obama’s utter disregard (even after the severe rebuke of the 2010 election) of what the country wanted him to work on in order to pursue his own personal agenda, and Romney’s concentration on the ailing American economy and the impending fiscal crisis. It reminded me a bit of what is surely the best pun in American political history, Gerald Ford’s “I’m a Ford not a Lincoln.”

Obama, a mountain of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, regards himself as a Lincoln at the very least. Romney regards himself as a man who has a job to do.

But I was also struck by a rhetorical dog that didn’t bark in the night. The word “mom” rang through the hall repeatedly. But, at least judging from the convention rhetoric, the word “mother” has completely dropped out of the American lexicon. If it was used even once, I missed it.

When I was growing up, “Mom” was a term of address, used only in the vocative. (Well, not to my mother. For some reason she hated the word and when we were young my brother and I called her “Mum,” which is just the British equivalent, although my mother was not British. By the time we were nine or ten we called her Mother.) Today, mom is used in all cases (“American moms,” “tell your mom,” “your mom’s apple pie”). The word survives only as metaphor (“the mother of all battles”).

I suppose it is just an example of the ever-increasing informalization of the language (in the 19th century it was not uncommon for upper-class kids to use the Latin terms Mater and Pater in addressing their parents). But, at least to my aging ears, it sounds off key.

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