Posted by: George | July 28, 2012

Romney and the Not So Subtle Subtleties of Genre

 Yesterday, Brian Williams of NBC News, broadcasting from the city of London, asked Mitt Romney if London was ready for the Olympics. Romney responded: “You know, it’s hard to know just now how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, supposed strike of immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something that is encouraging.”

The comment erupted into a firestorm, largely initiated by London tabloids, not know for restraint. Later in the day, Boris Johnson, the entertaining Mayor of London, also not know for restraint, used Romney’s comment to incite a large crowd at Trafalgar Square: “There’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready.” In a few hours after arriving in London, Romney had gone from being the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party to being some “guy.” It almost seemed like Mayor Johnson was attempting to revive the sixteen century entertainment of bear baiting with Romney as the bear.

Romney’s gaff even drew a rare criticism of a Republican politician from Fox News. Charles Krauthammer said, “It’s unbelievable, it’s beyond human understanding, it’s incomprehensible. I’m out of adjectives.”

If Mark Twain were still alive and still drafting Innocents Abroad, he might have devoted an entire chapter to Romney’s European tour.

A number of political commentators have discussed Romney’s seeming inability to understand the connotations of words or the subtleties of language. In this case, he failed to understand what Aristotle called the species of rhetoric. One of the remarkable contributions of On Rhetoric that has had lasting relevance is Aristotle’s division of rhetoric in three species or genres.

Deliberative rhetoric, Aristotle explains, is future oriented. It deals with what might happen and how future events impact the adoption of policy. Forensic rhetoric deals with the past. It is more concerned with establishing the facts of what happened, and so it is mostly found in the courtroom. Epideictic rhetoric deals with the present. It is more ceremonial, typically focusing on praise or blame.

When Williams asked Romney about whether or not London was ready to host the Olympics, Romney seems to have assumed that he was being asked, as a person who planned the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, to conjecture about future events and weigh in on policy. So, he gave a deliberative, analytic answer. He wanted to show that he was a competent politician. A smart guy.

But Williams asked the question in the city of London, the venue for the 2012 Summer Olympics, just a day before the opening ceremony. The answer should have related to that moment in the present. Romney needed to give an epideictic response. He needed to use ceremonial rhetoric. He needed to praise the city of London and the country of Great Britain. He needed to say, “I am a Londoner.”

Here is what could have been a satisfactory answer: “I am certain that the wonderful people of London are ready. I am looking forward to watching the games.” That answer might not have won him any votes back home or made him any new friends in London, but it would not have created controversy. Why? Because it would have been of the moment, appropriate to the occasion.

Here is what I would consider a better answer: “I know that some people have expressed concerns about whether or not the city of London is ready. We must remember that London, during the early years of World War II, endured one of the most extended and brutal air assaults in the history of civilization. Some of the Londoners who have been planning this year’s Olympics are the children of people who survived these air assaults. Even if they did not grow up hearing stories about huddling together for safety in bomb shelters, night after night, emerging to see homes and businesses in ruins, they know that the Battle of Britain has shaped the spirit of the city of London to this day. In the short time that I have been in London, I have sensed that spirit. I believe that the world will see the spirit of London in the coming days, and we will all be proud of what they have accomplished.”

That answer might have won a few votes back home. It would certainly have had a very different response from the citizens of London.

Okay, I know what you are thinking. Maybe only a handful of politicians in the world could come up with an answer like that on the spot without the help of speech writers.  Romney is definitely not one of them. But, it seems like a candidate for the Office of President of the United States could have come up with something like, “I think it will go fine.”

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