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Harry Reid The Riot Act

December 17, 2010

The little corner of the Internet in which I wander is all aflutter about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s remarks during Wednesday’s session and to Thursday’s press. The virtual grapevine has it Reid slammed some of the right honorable gentlemen in Senate chambers and then read them the riot act on TV.

Oh no, he didn’t. Not really. The real Riot Act is a 1715 British Parliament law about dispersing crowds of twelve or more, and while the Senate is composed of more than 12 people, and there’s some precedent for considering them a dangerous, dangerous mob, I’m pretty sure British law doesn’t apply there. I mean, OSHA doesn’t even apply there.

But then, oh yes he did. Because, as the Oxford English Dictionary helpfully reminds us, “to read the riot act” (small-caps pronunciation) is a metaphorical description for actually giving “severe warning or reprimand.”  And during his Dec. 16 remarks to the press, Reid pulled the Constitution out of his pocket and told the Republicans, and the White House, what for.

“What for” being slang meaning “to inflict severe pain or chastisement. Also, …to make him take notice; to show who is in charge.” OED, truly, love.

What did Reid say?  For the reprimand and chastisement, he used that lame rhetorical trick:  the dictionary definition.  That’s right.  He told the press:

But I’ll bet if you went to “H” in the dictionary and found hypocrite, under that would be people who ask for earmarks but vote against them.

Been there, seen the picture, etc., etc.  It’s the next part that matters—because that’s when Reid went and pulled out his pocket-sized, hard-bound copy of the Constitution. And it was like slam.  You see, it’s all about presence.

The New Rhetoric argues that presence is the purposeful “displaying of certain elements on which the speaker wishes to center attention in order that they may occupy the foreground of the hearer’s consciousness.”  Usually this is done with language.  Sometimes it’s done with props.

So Reid pulls out his Constitution—pulls it from an inner suit-coat pocket.  He holds it up for the reporters and cameras to see (and that pose becomes a circulating image bite).  This gesture, the small ceremony of revealing the book, draws our attention to it.  Reid makes the Constitution present for everyone; he “foregrounds” it, and with it, Reid foregrounds the support for his definitional argument about earmarks.

Definitions, we’ve said here before, are slippery things.  One way to make yours stick is to pin it to something sound.  Reid went for the Constitution, the thing that, he says “runs this country.”  And not just for Dems—the Tea-party caucus plans to study it like Scripture.  In other words, when looking for a steady definitional foundation, the Constitution isn’t the worst place to start.

So while Reid didn’t read the Riot Act, or even the Constitution, he did make the Constitution’s connection to his argument clear and present.  Just as reading aloud the Riot Act might have made present the law and (more importantly) the lawful repercussions for non-dispersing crowds in 18th-century London.  Or whenever.

Reid calls our attention to Constitution, using it to support his earmark definition and by extension, his definition of how members of Congress should act. He’s a Senator known for lackluster delivery, but by giving the Constitution real presence in this debate, Reid endows his remarks some actual oratorical fire. And that’s twice he’s turned Conservative touchstones on their heads—first with the work-over-Christmas argument and now with the Constitution.  Find him a flag to wave, Dems, and maybe this will be the Congressional Session When Stuff Got Done.

If you want to know more:

  • The definition of presence comes from Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric.  Alan Gross pushes the concept further in his 2005 RSQ’s “Presence as Argument in the Public Sphere.”  And I jargon-dropped “image bite” from Maria Elizabeth Grabe’s Image Bite Politics:  News and the Visual Framing of Elections, which we’ll have to do a post on some day.
  • Reid’s incendiary Senate comments, and attending lukewarm delivery, can be seen and heard here, around the 4:38:00 marker.  His comments to the press are seen and heard here, and if you are looking for ways to avoid answering questions you don’t like, then minutes 3:28-4:13  make for a first-rate seminar.  The cliff-notes video version is here.
  • While Reid was asked if his you-all-are-hypocrites claim counted as mean-spiritedness (A: meh), Reid was not asked if it was hypocritical to end his speech saying everyone should “cut down the mean-spirited talk about this, and just do our jobs” when he began it by calling Republicans hypocrites and the President a power-grabber.
  • An earmark-less definition of hypocrite can be found at Merriam-Webster, Wikipedia, or The Devil’s Dictionary (1906).  I get the OED through a campus subscription, but if you are reading from a similarly favored connection, link to the OED entry on hypocrite here and Riot Act here.
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