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Historical Political Speeches

In this chapter I apply the model to discussion of a few major political speeches that included persuasive rhetoric in some form. All three that I use are to a national audience by a sitting president of the United States. I include a chapter on historical speeches to illustrate historical analysis using the model. An attribute associated within the model implicitly, as discussed in Chapter 3, is the culture in which an audience has lived and its impact on prior experiences and cognition and perception. A challenge with historical study of persuasive speeches is to understand the historical context of the speech. The persuasive dynamics of such a speech cannot be removed from its culture when studying these dynamics. Much as the contemporary reader of this book is likely to understand concerns related to the fracking debate presented earlier, one needs to understand the historical context and culture present at the time of the speech. So, analysis necessarily includes such consideration.

Further, historical analysis should consider technologies available at a given period of time and the audience’s familiarity with that technology. This attribute will necessarily affect analysis with the model since the model includes consideration of the medium used to disseminate the message. The audience’s experience with a given technology affects how it uses that technology (Norman, 1988). I mentioned in Chapter 2, Pinker’s (1997) observation that people develop mental images to help them process information. A mental image of an object or person may help one to visualize the object or person when it or the person is not present at a given moment. For example, one may discuss the difference between Granny Smith apples and Red Delicious apples without either being present, and if another has seen both and retains the image of both in their mind, they can visualize each and “see” their differences during the discussion. So, while a message may be delivered monomodally (using a medium that facilitates one mode of representation), an audience of such a message may integrate a mental image to compliment that mode, making it a multimodal experience for the audience.

Prior to the advent of television, radio was the dominant medium. Radio facilitates only audio; however, one may have an image in their mind of what the speaker looks like and exercises that image during the broadcast. This may be associated with the Visual Dominance attribute of the model; the brain attempts to develop an image when one is not present, and it can do so based on previous experiences with that object or person or situation. An historian or political scientist, for example, may find analysis over a period of time relative just to technologies available for dissemination of political speeches of interest and value. I call attention to this topic in this chapter. The first speech I analyze was broadcasted via radio, before television was invented; yet, the audience could have visualized the speaker, creating a multimodal message for it.

Any presidential speech or Congressional testimony tends to integrate a few elements of persuasion, even if it seems mostly to be informational. The speaker attempts to use the speech to unite the country as one relative to the policy or action of which the person is speaking while trying also to appear genuinely concerned about the nation’s interests. Positioned as a leader, the speaker attempts to persuade the listeners to follow his policy and decisions. The tone of the speaker’s voice, then, tends to be authoritative yet concerned.

As those who have seen my previous books know, I am interested in World War II. It was a period in which nations around the world engaged in war on a scale never seen before nor since as democracy fought off imperialism. Even before U.S. involvement in WWII, the nation was manufacturing materials to support the Allies in their efforts to turn back German and Japanese Imperialism. With his “Great Arsenal of Democracy speech,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (F.D.R.) announced that he had authorized construction of several arsenals around the country that would develop munitions and act as warehouses for ammunition for the allies in the war. He framed this project around the fact that the world was facing a challenge to democracy from imperialist nations such as Germany and Japan. Generally, the speech encourages industry to change toward a war economy and lifting many restrictions on production and hiring of workers. The persuasive message, then, is to encourage industry and public to galvanize efforts toward helping fight against imperialism overseas.

Another important political speech is that of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In it, he acknowledges to the U.S. public and the world that the Soviet Union has placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, less than 100 miles from U.S. mainland. The message is addressed to multiple national audiences—to the U.S. public to let them know of the situation and convince them that his policy is right, and to the Cuban public to persuade them to sympathize with U.S. policy and perceive it to be correct.

The third address is that of Ronald Reagan to the people of Germany near the end of Soviet occupation of East Germany. Tensions of the Cold War had eased considerably by the time he spoke in Berlin to encourage the Soviet Union to remove physical barriers to reform and material artifacts of discord. The message there is to “tear down this wall,” encouraging democracy and other political reforms away from communism.

80 Historical Political Speeches


Figure 8.1 Model.

As I discuss each relative to the model I call attention to particular statements that are relevant to the analysis. A transcript of each speech is available in the Appendix; however, that is a print-linguistic representation of the speech, excluding multimodal attributes. All of the speeches are available via YouTube or the National Archives’ website for viewing or listening. So, I draw on some of the attributes of the actual video or audio in the analyses.

Again, I provide the visual representation of the model as a reference point below.

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