Rahm's Rhetoric: The Power of Persuasion
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Young Rahm Emanuel passed on a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet and went on to earn his master’s in communication studies at Northwestern, where his studies included rhetoric and argumentation. But his ballet teachers would surely be proud to see how their former pupil turns phrases and pirouettes around awkward issues. Below we’ve selected some recent Emanuel quotes and part of his 2012 budget address to showcase the mayor’s rhetorical moves, with the help of Jay Heinrichs’ book Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us about the Art of Persuasion (Three Rivers Press, 2007).
Speaking to reporters after completing the shortened or “sprint” version of the Chicago Triathlon:
What Rahm said
Mayor Rahm Emanuel described the Life Time Chicago Triathlon as a “great way to push off your midlife crisis” after a ninth-place finish in his age group of 50-to-54-year-olds. “You may say I may be unfit to be mayor. But you can never say I’m an unfit mayor,” Emanuel, 51, joked at an unrelated event. — Chicago Sun-Times, Aug. 30, 2011
Emanuel loves the useful figure of speech the Greeks called a chiasmus. “This criss-cross figure repeats a phrase with its mirror image,” writes Heinrichs. “They [sic] can yield surprising power. John F. Kennedy deployed a chiasmus during a televised address —‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’ — and thousands joined the Peace Corps.”
In a Q & A with Chicago Sun-Times reporter Fran Cohen Spielman (SESP75) during the mayoral campaign, Emanuel defended his “listening tour” of the city to hear the concerns of ordinary Chicagoans. Opponents claimed the listening tour proved Emanuel was a carpetbagger from Washington.
What was said
Spielman: “But why do you need a listening tour to tell you what Chicagoans are thinking?”
Emanuel: “Why do I listen? Because every problem that ails the city of Chicago, the solution can be found in Chicago.” — Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 17, 2010
Emanuel tweaks the classic hypophora. He takes the reporter’s real question, repeats it with a twist to create a rhetorical question he’d rather address, and then gives his answer. A hypophora, Heinrichs writes, “asks a rhetorical question and then immediately answers it. The hypophora allows you to anticipate the audience’s skepticism and nip it in the bud.”
Spielman also tried to get mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel to give an opinion on then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s universally reviled deal that leased Chicago parking meters to a private company for 75 years — with permission to jack up rates by 406 percent within five years.
What was said
Spielman: “Privatizing Chicago parking meters was unbelievably controversial. … Would you have done it?”
Emanuel: “It’s not helpful or productive to say, would I have done something in the past. It’s done. What are we gonna do going forward? … I want to ask fundamental questions: Should the city do this? Are there better ways to do it?” — Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 17, 2010
Here, Emanuel dismisses what happened in the past, and switches to talk about the future. It’s one of his favorite rhetorical devices, and here’s why:
According to Aristotle, there are three types of issues — blame, values and choices. They’re all associated with a tense of speech, and we use each for different types of arguments.
To assign blame, we use the past tense, like in a courtroom. Aristotle called that “forensic” rhetoric. To talk about values, we use the present tense in what Aristotle called “demonstrative” rhetoric. And to debate different choices and reach a decision, we use the future tense for “deliberative” rhetoric.
Heinrichs writes that “you will never meet your goals if you argue around the wrong core issue. … If you find an argument spinning out of control, try switching the tense.”
In this case, Emanuel doesn’t want to assign blame for the awful parking deal because Mayor Daley is one of his prime mentors and political allies. His goal is to instead talk about what the city can do from now on. So Emanuel switches the tense to the future — “What are we gonna do going forward?” — and begins talking about choices.
Heinrichs notes that, according to Aristotle, deliberative argument “is the most pragmatic kind of rhetoric. It skips right and wrong, good and bad, in favor of expedience. ”Emanuel’s critics think he dumps principles for practical results all too often, but for rhetorical purposes at least, Aristotle would approve.
The following section includes excerpts from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 budget address to the Chicago City Council on Oct. 12, 2011.
What Rahm said
“Nearly five months ago, we joined together in Millennium Park to take the oath of office. The people of Chicago gave us a mandate for change. They recognized that the status quo was not working — either for them or for their city. The clear evidence was the broken city budget and its huge deficits.
“Chicago cannot afford this kind of government any longer. A budget is about priorities. And this deficit is an opportunity to get it right. We can either start shaping our city’s future, or let it shape us.
What Rahm said
“Closing police districts has always been the third rail of Chicago politics. But that should not stop us from doing what’s right. The three districts we’re closing are some of the oldest buildings in the system. In each case, they are being merged with one of our newest facilities. I’m convinced that in these districts safety will be enhanced.
Aristotle defines three types of arguments to persuade an audience: logos (logic), ethos (the character of the speaker) and pathos (emotion). Here Emanuel uses logos, argument from logic, to convince us that these three police districts should be closed.
What Rahm said
“The North Side district we’re closing is the one that serves my neighborhood and community.”
Now Emanuel works on his ethos. Aristotle identified “three essential qualities of a persuasive ethos,” writes Heinrichs. Here Emanuel pumps up the third quality, selflessness or disinterest, by touting his self-sacrifice — he’s closing his own police district!
What Rahm said
“If I didn’t think this would improve public safety, I wouldn’t do it. I know that I receive police protection as mayor beyond what’s provided to other Chicagoans. But I won’t have this job — or this security detail — forever. And after everything I just went through, I plan to stay in my house for quite a long time!”
Finally, Emanuel uses self-deprecating humor to help his ethos a little further and also addresses pathos — the audience’s emotions. As Heinrichs writes, “Humor ranks above all other emotions in persuasiveness, in part because it works the best at improving your ethos. … [I]t makes you appear to stand above petty squabbles.”
The humor here is also meant to work on the audience’s mood. “As Aristotle observed, reality looks different under different emotions,” writes Heinrichs. Emanuel knows closing police districts is controversial, so part of his audience will be anxious or even angry. Humor is a calming device. “Sigmund Freud said that making people laugh ‘relieves anxiety’ by releasing impulses in a disciplined manner,” notes Heinrichs. — Cate Plys