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chapter 14 Report of the National Task Force on the Ethical Responsibilities of Presidential Rhetoric Chair: Steven R. Goldzwig, Marquette University Karrin Vasby Anderson, Colorado State University Frederick J. Antczak, Grand Valley State University Thomas W. Benson, Pennsylvania State University, University Park Rita Kirk Whillock, Southern Methodist University On Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Presidency Part of the implicit charge of this task force is to call the presidency to its ethical obligations, most particularly with respect to its rhetorical activities. And yet as any observer of the ongoing four-year cycles of presidential campaigning has come to see, American political discourse is saturated with candidate rhetoric designed to display “character” and surrogate rhetoric designed to cast doubt on the character of rival candidates. Talk radio often excoriates the character of political opponents as a premise and primary subject of political conversation. We distract ourselves with indignation, yet have trouble finding a purchase for reflective ethical inquiry and mutually respectful policy debate. In some 318 | Task Force Reports ways, it seems that we need a moratorium on ethics as the implicit theme of presidential and campaign discourse. And yet it is not so much that we need less focus on ethics as that we may need to refocus how we talk about ethics. The work of scholars in rhetoric has done much to encourage such a refocusing of ethical inquiry. The rhetorical tradition has invoked ethics in three interrelated senses— rhetoric and moral outcomes as the substance of persuasion; moral character as the basis of persuasion; and ethics as implied in the relation of public deliberation . Ethics and the Ends of Rhetoric The tradition tells us that we should value speakers and audiences who seek ethical ends. Of course, what counts as an ethical end is often precisely the issue that divides speakers on various sides of a question, forming the subject matter of public address; rhetoric itself can provide no infallible rule to choose among policy alternatives, in most cases—such judgments are part of the larger relations of ethics and politics. Rhetorical scholars and the public are rightly interested in how persuaders depict the ethics of policy questions. Some rhetorical scholars have warned against the danger of turning everyday policy arguments into ethical arguments prematurely, since such tactics can backfire, creating polarization, rigidity, and self-righteousness; pushing aside pragmatic considerations and mutually beneficial compromises; and creating mutually antagonistic camps both accusing the other side of moral blindness. Turning a great public question into a moral confrontation can have the effect of silencing the very deliberation that the society needs to deal with the problem ; failing to acknowledge the moral dimensions of a problem can prolong evasion and injustice. Some rhetorical scholars have asked whether certain ends are so important that the president has a moral obligation to support them. Steven R. Goldzwig and George N. Dionisopoulos argue that John F. Kennedy was right to make a moral commitment to civil rights, a position shared by Garth Pauley; Thomas W. Benson has interrogated Franklin D. Roosevelt’s silence on civil rights in two speeches delivered on the Gettysburg battlefield in the 1930s.1 Ethical Responsibilities | 319 Character as Rhetorical Proof Ethics, and the perceived enactment of ethics in the performed character of the speaker, form part of the “proof” of any discourse, from the audience’s point of view. This form of proof Aristotle called ethos.2 To ethos (the depicted character of the speaker or implied author), contemporary rhetorical theory has added concerns with how texts represent not only their authors but also their listeners and readers (second persona; implied audience); and how the text represents other human agents.3 Listeners do and should assess the ethical character of a speaker as part of the speaker’s general argument; the rhetorical text itself is a guide, though in the age of ghostwriting not always a reliable guide to presidential ethos.4 Assessments of presidential ethics properly include a consideration of how the president depicts not only himself or herself but also other human agents. Ethics of Communication Implied by Rhetoric Itself The act of engaging in rhetoric, as speaker or listener, implies ethical obligations for both. Karl Wallace wrote that “communication carries its ethics within itself,” by which he meant that “public address of any kind is inseparable from the values which permeate a free and democratic community.”5 Wallace argued that in a democratic society, speakers have an implicit obligation to meet certain ethical standards—they should be...


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