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Ron Paul: The Greatest Master of Political Rhetoric Since Reagan

Gary North
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Jan. 4, 2012

Ron Paul is a master of rhetoric. The average TV commentator does not understand this. I do. That's because, ever since age 16, I have been a very effective speaker. I always wanted to be a master of rhetoric. "Nice try. No cigar." Ron Paul got the cigar.

In 1976, I wrote a speech for him: 2-minutes long. He decided not to use it. That was one of his wiser moves. He never has used a speech writer. That, too, has been wise.

I hear the criticism that Ron Paul is not a polished speaker. This criticism is correct. But he is a nevertheless a master of rhetoric.

How can both positions be true? Because rhetoric is all about persuasion. Great oratory is not necessary.

It is usually assumed that a spellbinder is a master of rhetoric and vice versa. This is not necessarily the case. The mark of mastery of rhetoric is this: the speaker persuades a crowd to accept something that it had previously opposed. A supreme master is a person who has not only changes their minds but persuades the listeners to take action. This is so rare as to be unheard of.

The greatest master of political rhetoric in American history was William Jennings Bryan. He was also a great orator. He made a fortune on the lecture circuit after 1896. With one speech in 1896, he changed American history. He converted the low-tariff, low-tax, pro-gold standard Democrat Party into a Populist, statist political organization. It was captured by Progressive Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Nothing like this had happened before. Nothing like it has happened since.

The Wiki account of his "Cross of Gold" speech is accurate.

Now, Bryan was ready to conclude the speech, and according to his biographer, Michael Kazin, step "into the headlines of American history".

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

As Bryan spoke his final sentence, recalling the Crucifixion of Jesus, he placed his hands to his temples, fingers extended; with the final words, he extended his arms to his sides straight out to his body and held that pose for about five seconds as if offering himself as sacrifice for the cause, as the audience watched in dead silence. He then lowered them, descended from the podium, and began to head back to his seat as the stillness held.

Bryan later described the silence as "really painful" and momentarily thought he had failed. As he moved down the aisle, the Coliseum burst into pandemonium. Delegates threw hats, coats, and handkerchiefs into the air. Others took up the standards with the state names on them with each delegation, and planted them by Nebraska's. Two alert police officers had joined Bryan as he left the podium, anticipating the crush. The policemen were swept away by the flood of delegates, who raised Bryan to their shoulders and carried him around the floor. The Washington Post newspaper recorded, "bedlam broke loose, delirium reigned supreme."

In that brief time of silence, a thousand delegates reconsidered a political legacy going back to Thomas Jefferson, extending to Andrew Jackson, and -- still in office -- Grover Cleveland. Then they switched sides. That was rhetoric in action.

Ron Paul possesses this gift. He is persuading people to change their minds. He is gaining support where it should not be available: among recent graduates of the tax-funded school system.

This report in Time is indicative.

David Richardson, clad in his black leather Led Zeppelin jacket, rode his bicycle into the middle of the Iowa Speedway in Newton. There were no drivers on the track, but there was a different kind of race under way in a small building at the center of the facility -- one fueled by money and votes instead of gasoline. Texas Congressman Ron Paul was there on Wednesday afternoon to make his case for becoming the next President.

One look at Richardson, a 28-year-old factory worker, and it was clear he had already been won over. Along with a thick nose ring, he sported a Paul beanie and a Paul T-shirt bearing Iowa's state motto: "Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain." Richardson is one of many young people rallying to the 76-year-old Republican's candidacy. Some, like Richardson, have volunteered for him and are committed to voting for him; others are just intrigued. But the appeal is undeniable, and it could well determine where Paul finishes in Tuesday's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Despite his age, there is an air of rock 'n' roll around Paul. One supporter even flashed the rock-out-horns sign when asked on Thursday whether he was sold on the candidate: "Hell, yeah, for Ron Paul!" he said. "The message of liberty is really appealing to younger people," says Richardson, a heavy-metal fan who got interested in politics through battles over music censorship. One can spot dreadlocks or "Paul is my homeboy" T-shirts in the crowd at his campaign events. American Idol pop star Kelly Clarkson recently endorsed Paul on Twitter.

This is surreal. Paul is the oldest person ever to be a serious contender for a major party's nomination for President. (Mike Gravel was older, but he was never a serious contender. Harold Stassen in his last -- twelfth -- try in 2000 had been a joke ever since 1964, and he knew it. He was doing a recurring Pat Paulson routine.) Reagan, playfully referred to as "geezer," was 73 when he ran against Mondale in 1984. He had already won once. Yet Paul does not seem old. Everyone knows he is 76, but it's not a major topic in the media. It helps that, except for his knees, he is in better physical shape than the talking heads. He has always been in top-flight physical condition -- except for his knees. In a swimming pool or on a bicycle, he is not to be trifled with.

[I have an idea for a YouTube ad. Paul is riding his bicycle. He is wearing a gold colored jacket. On its back we see this in red: Judgment Day. He is carrying a pole. As he rides down a bicycle trail, he passes a series of signs. Federal Reserve System. Whack! Down it goes. Department of Education. Whack! Department of Energy. Whack! And so on, as he rides off into the sunset. There would be a pirated version that goes viral. A voice-over is heard. "I am Ben Bernanke, and I do not approve of this ad."]

The article continues. The heart of his message is optimism. (Note: that was also true of Reagan's rhetoric.)

And there are parts of Paul's stump speech that communicate youthful earnestness and optimism. "What you want to do with your life, what your religious beliefs are, what your intellectual pursuits are, what your private habits are -- that's part of freedom," he said in Council Bluffs on Thursday. Paul's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, says young people have an "amazing BS meter," and they often say they see Paul as more sincere, more reliable than the other candidates. "He's somebody that will solve the problems going on right now," says 17-year-old Aaron Schoppe, who will attend his first caucus this year. "They haven't had time to become cynical yet," says Benton.

They are young. They do not really understand the Austrian theory of the business cycle: "Intense pain now, permanent relief later." They may not have mortgages. They may not have wives and kids. But they do see what's coming if the federal deficit is not brought under control: disaster. No other candidate hammers on this.

The article observes: "It's not just stylistic." This is the heart of the matter. For 2,300 years, rhetoric has been associated with style. Yet this is not the heart of rhetoric. Persuasion is.

Paul's antiestablishment policies can be every bit as bewitching as his antiestablishment rhetoric. "I never thought I would see the day when it would be cool to be a libertarian on a college campus, but it is," says Blake Whitten, a statistics professor who sponsors the group Youth for Ron Paul on the University of Iowa campus, where the student newspaper endorsed the candidate this month. "We have all these kids running around with T-shirts that say 'End the Fed,' and a lot of them don't completely understand what the Fed is." When asked what piqued his interest in Paul, a 22-year-old Atlantic cook who caucused with Democrats in 2008 cited "regaining value to the U.S. currency."

Then there is the issue of war. He really is the only peace candidate in modern American history. He has the voting record to prove it. Generally, young people favor peace, as long as the country is not literally under attack. Why? Because their age group will pay the price. In one sense, his success here is not a mark of his rhetoric. Young people do not need to be persuaded. But in a deeper sense, his war stance is crucial to his rhetoric. He voted against the wars when it was unpopular to do this. That established his bona fides. Voters know they can trust him. He walks the talk. People are more likely to be persuaded by someone they trust.

Paul is a strict noninterventionist, opposed to all foreign aid and in favor of pulling U.S. troops back worldwide. "I'm not a typical conservative in that I don't like war," 28-year-old Ryan Sjaarda said at a town hall on Friday. "I think it's bad. I appreciate Ron Paul for that."

The article goes on: "But for all Paul's youthful support, there's still some question as to whether he can transform it into concrete electoral results." That is not my interest here. My interest is the fact that his ideas are getting a hearing where few of the pundits imagined they would as recently as six months ago.

The political engagement of young voters in the Hawkeye State gives the campaign some cause for optimism. A report released this summer by the nonpartisan group Rock the Vote found that young Iowans ranked second in the nation for voter participation: 63% of them cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election. And recent polls, like this one from Fox News, have shown that Paul's support doubles among voters under 50.

Richardson is doing his small part. After listening to Paul speak at the speedway, he hopped on his bicycle and pedaled toward home. After descending a hill, he suddenly stopped and turned around. He rode back to the building at the racetrack, where he picked up an armful of yard signs. Richardson didn't need one for himself -- he said he still has the giant lawn sign he put up in 2008. Even though the placards would be trying to carry on his bike, Richardson was determined to take them home for his neighbors -- a small price to pay for spreading the gospel of Paul.

He received 48% of the 18-29 voters in Iowa. These supporters are recent survivors of the indoctrination system known as the public schools. They had never been told of the existence of non-interventionism in foreign policy -- "isolationism" as it is refereed to. They had not heard of the gold standard. The last Presidential candidate to run on that platform was Alton B. Parker -- not a household name, surely. (I, of course, am a big Parker fan.) They had been conventional, that is, content with the welfare state. Ron Paul has changed their minds. He has also changed their behavior.

This is what rhetoric is all about. It is usually connected with masterful oratory. Not this time.

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