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Peggy Noonan and the Career Politician Ethos: A Tale of Forbidden Love

November 12, 2010

Illustration by Kate Holterhoff

Ronald Reagan is dead.  But, much like zombie politicians, he hasn’t allowed this fact to lessen his role in politics.  Peggy Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter, recently used Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin to give us a lesson in political ethos and the value of the “career politician.”

Noonan’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was mostly a predictable reaction to the 2010 midterm election results.  Near the end, however, Noonan reacts strongly to recent comments made by Sarah Palin’s Reagan-ba

sed defense of her TLC reality show.  Palin made the comment on Fox News, comparing her celebrity to Ronald Reagan’s acting career.


Noonan takes umbrage with the comparison, reminding readers of Reagan’s other pre-presidency accomplishments (including his union leadership, two terms as California governor and role in redefining the conservative politics).  She writes:

[Reagan] brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him. He wasn’t in search of a life when he ran for office, and he wasn’t in search of fame; he’d already lived a life, he was already well known, he’d accomplished things in the world.

I’m pretty sure that Noonan has read Cicero’s De Oratore but, if you aren’t, you need only read the end of her argument:

Here is an old tradition badly in need of return: You have to earn your way into politics. You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent: You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can’t just bully them, you can’t just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade.

Americans don’t want, as their representatives, people who seem empty or crazy. They’ll vote no on that.

It’s not just the message, it’s the messenger.

Noonan waxes nostalgic about ethos, and she doesn’t mean the bottled water they sell at Starbucks.  A quick primer: ethos is basically just credibility in speech.  It is usually partnered with pathos (appeal to emotion) and logos (appeal to logic) to create a very broad classificatory scheme for arguments.  Are you having flashbacks to speech class?  Sorry.

I should mention that there is more than one way to look at ethos.  Aristotle generally places ethos in speech only.  That is, you were credible or not credible based on what people heard in speech, not based on what your audience knew about you beforehand.  Cicero’s and Quintilian’s ethos takes into account your reputation, the audience’s sympathy for your character, their belief that you’re a “a good man speaking well.”

Noonan believes that our political choices ought to reflect a Ciceronian/Quintilianian sense of ethos, in which real accomplishments (and not merely style) are a necessary to be a persuasive and effective public figure.  But is accomplishment-based credibility for politicians really “an old tradition?”  I’m not so sure.  I think that Noonan is disparaging a kind of anti-ethos that has been popular lately.  You hear it whenever someone uses the phrase “career politician.”

We normally like career-minded people.  I prefer career surgeons, career teachers and career policemen to enthusiastic amateurs who want to come in and “shake things up.”  But career politicians are no longer trustworthy people; they’re “fatcats who only care about getting re-elected,” people who like “back room deals” and “pork barrel spending” and any other incredibly banal political malediction you can name.

The beltway outsider has enjoyed a great vogue in our political culture, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.  But I do think Noonan and others like her (see my footnote on Megan McCain) make an important point.  If the career-politician ethos is a bad thing, we’re going to have to decide what kind of ethos is a good thing for aspiring politicians.  That’s a question you don’t hear very often: if politicians shouldn’t be running Washington, who should be?

If you want to know more:

  • For a short, well-written introduction to ethos and its role in politics, see Michael Halloran’s “Aristotle’s Concept of Ethos, or If Not His Somebody Else’s.”
  • Palin’s defense of her reality show (which she argues is not a reality show at all) is a response to criticism by Karl Rove.
  • Noonan’s criticism of Palin echoes Megan McCain’s comments about Christine O’Donnell’s candidacy.
  • My explanation of ethos borrows heavily from the canned speech I give in response to the question “what is rhetoric?” at weddings and family reunions.
  • I wanted very much to make a reference to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn and call Noonan “Peggy Noonien Singh,” but I was afraid no one would get it.
  • Here are some examples of “outsider” claims by Obama, Palin, Mitt Romney and John Edwards.  Special thanks to Alexis Teagarden for these.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Michele K. permalink
    November 12, 2010 11:55 am

    A great post.

    For two reasons, I think your reading of Noonan, presidential logographer extraordinaire, is better served by translating ethos as “character” instead of “credibility”. First, ethos means something like “custom” or “habit”, suggesting the emergence of character over time and through a demonstrated pattern of actions and motions (inartistic) or the sense of a speaker’s self as cultivated by a given speech (artistic). Second, ethos is one of three pisteis of persuasion, pistis meaning “trust”, “faith”, or “credit”. Etymologically and practically, then, one can categorize appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos as contributors to the credibility of a speaker, instead of ethos only.

    • Doug Cloud permalink*
      November 19, 2010 7:45 pm

      Good point. I do generally look at ethos as “character.” I think referring to ethos as a credibility makes a sort of jump from good character to credibility. You’re also right when you say that logos and pathos contribute to the credibility of a speaker. Carolyn Miller has demonstrated, for example, that the use of logo-centric arguments can contribute to a scientific ethos.

      I’ve often found that the differences between ethos, pathos and logos collapse when I try to use them to classify arguments. I tell students that it’s best to look at the ethical, pathetic and logical elements of arguments rather than try to point to something and say “that’s pathos.”


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