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    By: MARK COLLETTE, Staff Writer June 10, 2004

    In an age when "rhetoric" is synonymous with empty political jabs, it's unlikely any eulogies will remember Ronald Reagan as the Great Rhetorician, but perhaps they should.

    One local professor of communication says rhetoric is no dirty word. He defines it as "strategic communication designed to induce cooperation in individuals who would otherwise be divided."

    If Reagan never moved great armies, he certainly reached massive and often starkly divided audiences, sometimes within the same breath.

    Consider the brief speech that replaced the State of the Union address Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff.

    Reagan told America's schoolchildren: "I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery."

    The next paragraph had a not-so-subtle hint to the Soviet Union: "We don't hide our space program. We don't keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we wouldn't change it for a minute."

    In the same speech he talked to the victims, to their families, and to the people who would continue the space program, despite some who "slipped the surly bonds of earth."

    The speech, partly drafted by Peggy Noonan, ranks eighth on the list of the 100 most significant American political speeches of the 20th century, voted on by 137 scholars of American public address.

    That list is on, a Web site built and maintained by Dr. Michael Eidenmuller, assistant professor of communication at The University of Texas at Tyler, where he teaches rhetorical theory and criticism.

    Eidenmuller counts Reagan among three "great rhetorical presidents" of the 20th century, a list that also includes Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

    Yet Reagan's words were not always received as fondly as they are often recalled at a time of mourning. He had "a public relations army to ensure that his legacy is rhetoric," Eidenmuller says.

    "The media was not that kind to him while he was in office," he says. "His 'Evil Empire' speech was trotted out the next day and put in a negative frame."

    Reagan found himself on the defensive with that speech, in which he cast the nation's relationship with the Soviet Union in moral terms for the first time, and in his touting of the costly Strategic Defense Initiative and his economic policies.

    "Consensus," writes Calvin Woodward in a news analysis for the Associated Press, "exists only on his ability to connect with people."

    As for the blurring of the lines between multinational politics and morality, Eidenmuller says, "You didn't hear this kind of language before Reagan."

    But it has certainly surfaced since, perhaps most loudly in President Bush's "axis of evil" and the war on terrorism, a war he has cast in no uncertain moral terms.

    But Bush, Eidenmuller argues, lacks the "Mr. Rogers" quality of Reagan, "who explained sophisticated policy in a neighborly way."

    He used populist rhetoric, Eidenmuller says, preferring stories over statistics.

    In his first inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1981, when Reagan issued the call to curb government amid one of the worst periods of sustained inflation in U.S. history, he told Americans they would have to make sacrifices to solve the nation's problems.

    But rather than defining sacrifice in terms of money, he pointed to a nondescript marker in Arlington National Cemetery that belonged to a soldier who died in World War II and left this pledge in his diary: "America must win this war. Therefore I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone."

    On June 6, 1994, Reagan stood on Omaha Beach and used the story of a child who returned to Normandy to honor the promise of her father, a D-Day veteran who had died of cancer.

    Where others failed to instill confidence with statistics, Reagan succeeded with rhetoric, Eidenmuller says.

    "If Carter alerted us to the idea that Americans were lacking confidence, Reagan was the rhetorical antidote to that," he said.

    President Jimmy Carter knew it.

    "I probably know as well as anybody what a formidable communicator and campaigner that President Reagan was," Carter said before a Sunday school class in his hometown last weekend. "It was because of him that I was retired from my last job."

    Mark Collette covers Southern Smith and Upshur counties. He can be reached at 903.596.6303. e-mail:

    ©Tyler Morning Telegraph 2004
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