Quintilian: “Rhetoric is the art of…good man speaking well.”
In Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric, he claims that the orator must appeal to three means of persuasion–ethos (the character/credibility of the speaker), pathos (the emotions of the audience), and logos (reason)–to make an effective speech and win his audience’s approval. The importance of trustworthiness is all the more magnified when the speaker is seeking a leadership position. If the orator can convince the people of his good character, the audience becomes receptive to the emotions that he wishes to arouse in it in order to elicit the desired action. On the other hand, if the speaker fails to get his good character across, the audience may regard him with suspicion and be quicker to point fingers at him at the slightest hint of dishonesty or lack of transparency. Herein lies Hillary Clinton’s PR problem in a nutshell, and it starts with her delivery.
The noblest of a speaker’s intentions can get hopelessly obscured by unconvincing delivery. According to Classics professor Curtis Dozier, the quality of arete (virtue/excellence) must shine through naturally. We see clear examples of Clinton’s oft-maligned unnatural delivery in Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of Hillary Clinton in recent SNL presidential debate sketches that riff on her perceived emotional disconnect and political ambition that comes off as trying too hard. Logos appears to be the one rhetorical tool HRC has mastered; at times, she effectively invokes pathos, as in her DNC speech, but ethos is the area where she apparently misses the ball with most voters.
To win an audience’s trust, the speaker must convey his possession of not only arete but also phronesis (judgment) and eunoia (goodwill). Does Hillary Clinton possess these rhetorical virtues? People who know “the real Hillary” would argue that she does. Journalist Ezra Klein’s Vox interview with Clinton’s colleagues reveals her warmth, humor, and ability to listen intently in order to hone in on a problem and implement the best solution in a timely manner. This listening style of leadership also accounts for her successful coalition-building, even across party lines. Of course, HRC’s inclusive rapport communication also entails a set of compromises that include her “hesitancy and habit of avoiding hard choices,” according to Joshua Green as interviewed by Ezra Klein, as well as the argument that her speeches lack a defining flavor, suffering from the input of too many cooks spoiling the soup.
So any virtues that Clinton has may be obscured by a hodgepodge of conflicting opinions when it comes to crafting her speeches. Does this possibility answer why voters haven’t responded accordingly to her reported benevolence? Why was what appeared to be her main political strength, listening, reframed as a weakness? Could it be that the only tools of rhetoric at her disposal to convince them of her trustworthiness weren’t designed for her as a woman? After all, according to Curtis Dozier, the Greek root of andreia, or courage, means “man.” All of the virtues that Aristotle deemed could earn an audience’s trust are, in his and his contemporaries’ view, male characteristics. Dozier explains that “it’s not that women can’t be courageous–it’s that the version of courage that Aristotle says a speaker should show to convince an audience she’s trustworthy is inescapably gendered masculine. For a woman to possess andreia…she has to act like something she’s not, which is not a position from which trust can easily be won.” Klein would agree: “You do not need to assert any grand patriarchal conspiracy to suggest that a process developed by men, dominated by men, and, until relatively late in American life, limited to men might subtly favor traits that are particularly prevalent in men. Talking over listening, perhaps.”
Perhaps because Clinton knows her situation is one of “damned if you do,” as suggested by rgelmosner, she acts recklessly, fatalistically flouting the press she openly mistrusts. Simply put by Klein, “Other ex-officials give paid speeches to big banks, so why shouldn’t she? Other officials use private email accounts sometimes, so why can’t she use hers all the time? Republicans and the media really have treated her unfairly, so why shouldn’t she dodge press conferences and conceal transcripts?” Such mentality and behavior obviously undermines her professed efforts at earning voters’ trust.
We’ve established that HRC’s gender and listening style of leadership work against her on the campaign trail, but she has publicly acknowledged the image of untrustworthiness that has been attached to her and expressed desire to change it, so perhaps it would benefit her campaign now to take advantage of the tools at her disposal: that is, adopt a feminine style of discourse. Maybe she can tell more homespun personal stories; doing so wouldn’t be a step back for feminism because we all know of her intellectual strength. As seen in her Between Two Ferns appearance, comedy does not serve her particularly well, so perhaps she should stick to authentic anecdotes like the one she offered to HONY. The advantage of social media is that it is a platform that doesn’t require her to stand in front of a large crowd expecting her to appeal to its emotions with charisma and blustering confidence. If determined social media users can help curate her online persona into one that’s more likable, trustworthy, and, dare I say, hip, perhaps there is hope for an image reversal after all.