Newt Gingrich pulled off a superb virtue tactic at last night’s GOP debate. Fully prepared for the first question, Gingrich declared himself to be “appalled.” He got a standing ovation and, probably, a bunch more votes in tomorrow’s South Carolina primary. Why? Because he fought virtue (the rhetorical kind, not to be confused with the real kind) with virtue (ditto).
The moderator, CNN reporter John King, began by asking about a former wife’s revelation that Gingrich asked for an open marriage. Gingrich responded by attacking King.
I am appalled that you would begin
a presidential debate on a topic like that.
King replied that Gingrich mentioned Monica Lewinsky in every speech during the Clinton scandal. But it didn’t matter. CNN, and the “mainstream media” in general, make an easy target for the Republican Party’s right wing.
And, as we’ve pointed out before, virtue makes for one of the most powerful rhetorical tools—one that Obama lacks, by the way.
One of the three aspects of ethos, or character, virtue makes people believe you share their values and live by those values. So how does a serial marriage-vow-breaker employ virtue? By calling the accusation a sin. Whether you think King’s question was sleazy doesn’t matter. What matters is whether South Carolina voters thought it was sleazy. And, judging by the reaction of the audience, they did. Sleazier, presumably, than Gingrich’s marital antics.
Virtue is a topic of demonstrative rhetoric, the language of preachers. It deals with right and wrong, with sinners and those sinned against. It’s the most tribal form of rhetoric, and the kind of rhetoric you hear most in politics today. Which is unfortunate.
Aristotle designated deliberative rhetoric, the language of choices, as the rhetoric of politics. But public discourse today deals with tribes and values, not problems and decisions. That’s one big reason why Congress just sits there, appalled.
Figaro especially loves the word “appalled.” It means, literally, “turned pale.” Coming from the whitest of all candidates, that word is just perfect.