FINAL EXAM: Modern Political Communication and Rhetoric

This semester’s course in contemporary political rhetoric in The School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University started in January with Aristotle’s Rhetoric, worked through Kenneth Burke, Richard Weaver, Ernest Bormann and others, then looked at contemporary analyses of rhetoric and war, the rhetoric of apology, and other case studies, and ends with the below final exam.

What’s your answer?

Modern Political Communication and Rhetoric

Spring 2014 – Final Exam

After four years at GW you launch into a successful career as a political strategist. The work is fun and financially rewarding. You help elect some good people, help advance some good policies, and generally carve out a good niche over a couple decades in D.C.

One day you wake up and you realize that you’re done. You’re not bitter or disillusioned, you’re just done. You know more former elected officials than current ones, the food in the Longworth cafeteria has finally lost its appeal, and you just can’t bring yourself to go to another breakfast at the Metropolitan Club or another dinner at the Washington Hilton. You’ve made a fair amount of money, never married, and never had kids (no GW tuition to worry about), and as a result have a pretty hefty amount in savings. Any work you do is out of habit or because you can’t think of anything else to do with your time.

In an effort to figure out what to do about the boredom, you take a week off and just drive around. You turn off your electronic devices, put an autoreply on your phone, and tell your assistant you’ll check in from payphones (assuming you can find any) but are otherwise unavailable. In your wanderings you come across Middle Falls.

Middle Falls is a good place to be, but could use some help. The high school is need of some repairs and the athletic fields are a bit of a mess. The infrastructure is pretty old and the age is beginning to show. Nothing drastic, no bridges collapsing or anything, but things are getting frayed around the edges. You notice but don’t much care – sort of fits your mood.

You find the bed and breakfast in town, call your assistant, and say it will be a couple more days. The bed and breakfast is owned by a railroad buff named James Bryce. The place is full of model trains, and pictures of trains, and books about trains, and model train catalogues, and fliers advertising model train conventions, and ads for model train museum that Bryce runs at the other end of town. It’s odd, but appealing.

Turns out the town is full of interesting people and places to hang out. There’s a local bar that appears mostly to be a place for the owner’s roots-rock band to play, a local newsweekly owned by a guy who once played an accordion in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, and a former professional soccer player turned abstract artist.

A couple blocks off Main Street you find a rambling house with a rambling barn that’s for sale. The house is being sold cheap by the grandchildren who inherited it; they live far from Middle Falls and would rather never return. Tempting.

A day or two later you’ve stopped thinking the train thing is odd, and you are no longer jittery that you aren’t checking email constantly. This is a nice place to be and figure out what’s next.

You call the number on the “for sale” sign in front of the house, and offer cash on the condition you get all the contents of the home, including the old British car under a tarp in the barn. The owners agree. You call your assistant and suggest now might be a good time for her to look for another job.

Within weeks you sell your place in DC, close your business, and put Washington in the rearview mirror.

You get a dog.

You quickly become part of the Middle Falls landscape. You spend most of your time fixing up the house and car, with pretty leisurely breaks for coffee at the diner or walks with your dog.

One day Jim Bryce turns up at city hall with a proposal to run a street car the length of Main Street. He says it will add character to the town, attract tourists, and add a bit of life to the fading sun which is Middle Falls. The street car would run from one end of Main Street (where, coincidentally, Bryce’s bed and breakfast is located) and end at the other (where, coincidentally, Bryce’s model train museum is located). Bryce says that model trainers will come and bring their families, all of whom will bring commerce and fun. Model trains may not be much, but they’re more than the town has now. Bryce has offered to pay for the streetcar itself if the town will pay for the rails and infrastructure.

The town is divided over the proposal.

Some see it as a terrific opportunity, at worst there are more train nerds in town and a cute railway. Some of the model train people might even stay, meaning home values go up and there is more demand for retail. And those who visit will need to eat and sleep somewhere.

Others think it’s a terrible idea. Middle Falls, they say, doesn’t need a wave of outsiders, especially those dressed like train engineers – it’s bad enough when the Civil War reenactors are in town, but at least that’s only once a year, trains are year-round. A street car would be loud and make it hard to cross the street. Besides, Middle Falls is fine the way it is.

You don’t much care. You’ve never really understood the train thing, but it’s pretty benign as obsessions go, and some of the complex sets and scenes that people build are pretty cool. Bryce is a good guy, and a little more commerce wouldn’t be a bad thing. But the idea of a street car bell is a bit irritating and the idea drunken train-nerd conventioneers is frankly unsettling. Whatever, you have your dog and repairs to keep you occupied, political battles and all they entail are what you left behind.

One morning while sitting at the diner, drinking cheap coffee from a chipped mug, you overhear two locals debating the issue. When one starts hectoring people at neighboring tables, you quickly finish your coffee, tuck your Middle Falls Communicator under your arm (more on that in a moment), and duck out the door. The last thing you want to do is take a position, let alone articulate one.

But all good things must come to an end.

You turn right out of the diner, heading toward the hardware store, and literally bump into someone coming out of the Bryce’s train store, “Last Train Home” (motto: Modelling Fun Since 2014). You’re rescued from a scolding when he recognizes you – turns out the guy you nearly leveled is a long-time political operative train-nerd who has built his career being the go-to guy for rail issues in Washington (Amtrak, safety issues, rights of way, subsidies, labor issues, that seriously absurd boarding process at Penn Station, you name it). He’s in Middle Falls to give a talk at Bryce’s model train museum. He’s met some very nice people in town, many of whom support the street car and welcome new development and new opportunities. You chat, you catch up, and you artfully avoid taking a position on the proposal.

You duck into the hardware store for a few lag shields (and to keep out of sight while your old friend wanders into the diner). The ducking your old colleagues part of the plan worked, but at the expense of getting cornered by the guy from the diner. He saw you talking to your old friend and wants to know how you know him, and whether or not you support the plan, and what you’re going to do to help stop it because he knows who you are he did some research, and the people of Middle Falls need you to stand up for them and help defeat the nutty train people.

You see no choice but to get involved – better to have half the town hate you than all of it.

The town has one paper, The Middle Falls Communicator, a weekly run by M.E. Sprengelmeyer. M.E. is a former reporter in DC who you know from your time in politics. Like most reporters he got laid off, and like some he found a little town with a little paper that needed running. He writes about school sports and town events (when the Middle Falls FHA team won the state title, it was a very big deal), but mostly uses the paper as an excuse to write a weekly column about whatever occurs to him. M.E. made a minor splash in DC when he bought one of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s suits and wore it to a White House Christmas party, and he is a hilarious poker player.

There are four members of the town council. The mayor votes to break ties. That means votes can be 4-0, 3-1, or 3-2 because a 2-2 vote would force the mayor to decide the winner.

The Council

Jeff Miller owns the one bar in town. It’s a local place, not fancy but mostly clean. The kind of place you can sit at the bar, have a burger and beer, and watch whatever is on ESPN without anyone bothering you. There is a small stage for the occasional band or show, typically friends of Jeff’s or whomever M.E. can get to join an accordion-led jam session. Jeff sponsors a local little league team, does his part in the community, and is generally a low-key guy. He’s on the council because civic participation is a good thing to do, and to keep the rules from either getting too restrictive (he does sell booze for a living) or too weird. It’s the perfect local bar. No one is sure where Jeff’s from, he’s not an obvious urban refugee like you are, but he’s also not a local who traces his roots back however many generations this town goes.

John Philip is one of those guys who traces his family roots back to the founding of the town. John owns the hardware store, and holds forth on all that is wrong with modern society to anyone who’ll listen. He’s the lead organizer of the Memorial Day events, he’s a veteran and his dad was among the first people in Hiroshima after the US dropped the bomb in WW II. He hosts the annual Middle Falls History Pageant (and is always surprised when it’s under-attended). He is the guy for whom the phrase “cut off your nose to spite your face” was invented.

Kim Deal is one of those people Philip can’t stand. She owns a “craft emporium” on Main Street that sells artsy teapots, wind chimes, dream catchers, and her own awful water color paintings of Middle Falls. She was a successful real estate agent in Washington, specializing in high end condos and luxury buildings; she tells people that she got tired of the money chase and the endlessly pointless small talk and pretense that is Washington (“people in Washington wear masks to hide their masks, it’s worse than a lack of depth or soul, Washington lacks even any meaningful surface…”). That her departure from DC coincided with the collapse of the condo market is, in her telling, coincidental (“it was a sign, a blessing really…”) She calls herself spiritual but has a hard time explaining what exactly she believes in or what spiritual even means. She has also maintains her real estate license and does a pretty good business selling and renting homes in Middle Falls.

Meghan Olsen is a history teacher at Middle Falls High School. Her son grew up in Middle Falls and graduated from Middle Falls High. Olsen got involved in politics as an outgrowth of being an involved parent and because she thinks it is the sort of thing that history teachers ought to do. She was active in the PTA because her son was a student, she ran for the local school board to ensure that books weren’t banned from the school library and that “intelligent design” wasn’t taught in science classes. Serving on the City Council was the next logical step. To the extent she has a political ideology it is best described as “pragmatic progressive” (or in the eyes of some, “limousine liberal”).

Brett Dewey is the mayor. He’s a good guy, runs the diner, and likes being called The Mayor. He likes the town and the folks who live there, likes throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the little league season, and running the grill at the Memorial Day celebration. He likes to govern by consensus and is good at getting people around a table and affably working things out – “what this debate needs is a little pie, why don’t we move this meeting to a booth at the diner and we can figure something out” is his preferred (and often successful) approach. Dewey likes being the mayor of a town in which that solution can work; Middle Falls is a big enough place to have problems, but small enough that they can usually be talked through to an amicable solution. As you might expect, he dislikes voting to break ties, he prefers to either support something early in the hopes the decision will be a near-consensus, or when the outcome is a foregone conclusion. He likes to be the reconciler, not the decider.

What are you going to do, and why are you going to do it?

In your answer be sure to indicate: which side of the debate you’re taking; who your audience is and why; how you intend to approach the campaign and why; and how you are going to frame the debate and why.

Focus on strategy and approach rather than tactics and tools – for example, if you are going to hand out fliers describe their tone, but you don’t have to write them.

Your ideas must be feasible and reasonable.

I will be looking for evidence that you have read and understood the semester’s readings, and absorbed our class discussions – I’m not looking for footnotes or citations, but rather application of the course. Your presentation must be clear and clearly articulated.

You can discuss the situation with your colleagues, but your essay must be yours and yours alone.  Most answers will probably run about five to eight pages – shorter and longer are fine, the object is to be complete without going nuts. I’ll answer clarifying questions to a point, but may also decline to answer and leave you to your own devices.

I look forward to your solutions.

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