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Rick Perry Pulls Out All the Rhetorical Stops in New Ad

December 2, 2011

It’s a pretty commonplace notion that one way to diminish the impact of mistakes or gaffes is to laugh about them. Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry has taken this strategy in this new campaign ad, which will air during his upcoming appearance on “The Tonight Show.”


Here we see Perry attempting to laugh off one of his more interesting recent missteps. You know, that time in a debate when he forgot one of the three major federal agencies he would just up and scrap if elected president. Now, I’m willing to disregard the fact that I think it’s way crazier that the dude wants to just up and get rid of like a third of the government than that he couldn’t rattle off all the departments he wants to cut when under pressure in order to remind you that much of the discussion afterwards focused on the mere fact of his forgetting.

As that Times article I just linked to indicates, Perry has been trying to laugh this one off since it happened, prompting visitors to his website to share which part of the federal government they’d most like to forget (I looked on Perry’s website and couldn’t find the post prompting this, or if there were any published results, but it’s my bet that no one really seriously suggested anything having to do with defense spending. Ha ha ha). And as I’ve written on this here blog before, humor can be used rhetorically to enhance solidarity—to divide the world into those who get the joke and those who don’t. Perry’s past attempts, and this new ad, do a bit of that, nudging the audience and saying “you aren’t REALLY one of those snooty people who’d take a little brainfart so seriously that you wouldn’t vote for me, are you?”

What’s different about this new ad, though, is the way in which Perry is now trying to not only shrug off his gaffe, but use it to his advantage. I’m talking about the part where he says “If you want a slick debater, I’m obviously not your guy, but if you want a clean house in Washington, [etc., etc.] I’m your man.” See, Perry has been trying to use the fact that he’s the only Republican presidential candidate who never served in any of them fancy Washington legislative bodies or administrations as a means to position himself as an outsider, as this other ad attests:

In his new ad, Perry tries to link his slip-up to his outsider persona, contrasting a “slick debater” with someone who will “clean house.” The use of the word “slick” alone implies sliminess, debating not from a position of authority but from a position of, dare I say it, “mere rhetoric.” Perry’s not just some debater, yuck. He isn’t necessarily good at that Washington-type stuff, but this is precisely why you can count on him to be straight shooter and to shake things up. In this way, the gaffe goes from a mistake, to a joke, to an indication of an admirable trait.

Again, this kind of attempt to change a point of criticism into a point of pride is something we’ve seen before, and god knows that outsider framing is nothing new. But what’s pretty cool about this Perry ad is the way in which it blends all these rhetorical tricks into one—it’s got humor, both to portray Perry as able to laugh at himself and to encourage his audience not to make a big deal out of his memory lapse, it’s got the attempt to turn a misstep into potential benefit, and it’s got implicit criticism of more mainstream politicians. What a smorgasbord of rhetorical fun, right?

If you want to know more:

  • As we point out in more depth in the posts I linked to above, strategies at play here include the rhetorical use of humor (Keith Basso’s Portraits of the Whiteman is my go-to here), framing (none better than George Lakoff), and strategies of self-presentation (survey says “Goffman!“).
  • Do you think Rick Perry is wearing the same denim shirt in both of those ads, or does he just have a lot of denim shirts? Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wore almost nothing but, what with being such an outsider and all. Kinda like the villain in The Stand.
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