Frontier Rhetorician Dan Henry of Haines grades the debate

“Sarah and Aristotle”
by Dan Henry

Aside from being shocked at her buffed-up conservative cred, I am wallowing in the rhetorical compost Sarah Palin produced in the vice-presidential debate. The debate coach in me is turning somersaults. I imagine the practice sessions, the feedback, the script, the coaching strategy.

Concerning the speaker, Aristotle says, the art of persuasion demands relatively equal portions of ethos, pathos, and logos. You probably already know this. Ethos goes to the speaker’s character–credentials, expertise, achievements, physical appearance; pathos wraps arguments around the heart, allowing a skilled rhetor to play an audience with fear, patriotism, hope, rage, affiliation; logos pertains to statistics, facts, reasoning, and “common good.” The American Association of Trial Lawyers reported in 2003 that of the three, ethos rules. You can have the greatest facts in the world, but God help you if you come from the wrong neighborhood holding hands with the wrong little sister.

Usually, pathos has less of a role in a presidential debate, restrained by expectations of “what looks presidential.” Opponents don’t go off on each other like, say, hockey moms. Logos was the problem. Cramming all the facts required too much catch-up for our gal—she couldn’t be expected to know things about Supreme Court rulings and the name of the US commander in Afghanistan. Sarah’s coach told her to play up her God-given talent for a wink and a smile. Her confident, articulate manner was honed on a Wasilla pulpit, and gives her access to a vernacular that speaks volumes to her ultra-conservative base. That she gets people to pray for the pipeline is a bonus.

As a longtime Alaska debate coach, I coached some sharp kids who were just like Sarah, and usually tried to pair them up with a kid who could get the facts straight. Play up your sincerity and how long you’ve lived here, I told one struggling debate student years ago. The local judges didn’t buy it, but they were impressed that she could be so darned perky while being trounced by those big-town debaters. Sarah’s a whippersnapper, a gal with the right brand of ethos needed to carry on the conservative dream. Plus she’s a “maverick.”

While Joe Biden relied on his experience and knowledge as a U.S. senator; “maverick” Sarah strove to cement her affiliation with a demographic. Her “ah, shucks!” manner was pronounced in the sheer numbers of colloquialisms, clearly aimed at “soccer moms” and “Joe Six Packs” and not, apparently, at other voters, AKA “citizens”. I was astounded at her “maverick” (said 6 times) insistence to take her own path, away from the issues at hand. “And I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.” Aaaah-dacious.

She stuck to her script, just as she was coached, and stayed perky till the end.

My thanks to Haines writer Dan Henry for being a guest-blogger.

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