Landrieu’s Language Trumps Controversy: 3 Classic Techniques

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Landrieu’s Language Trumps Controversy: 3 Classic Techniques on Monday, June 5, 2017.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose name has begun to generate buzz as a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2020, added to that buzz last month with a powerful speech that addressed the controversy ignited by the removal of four statues of Confederate figures from his city.

Mary Schmich, the Pulitzer Prize columnist of the Chicago Tribune called it “one of the great modern speeches on history and race in America;” Frank Bruni of the New York Times remarked on its eloquence; and Chris Cillizza of CNN called out the 12 best lines. I’ll add to Mayor Landrieu’s praise here by calling out three classic rhetorical techniques he employed:

1. Antithesis juxtaposes adjacent contrasting ideas as John F. Kennedy did in his Inaugural Address:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

Mr. Landrieu’s use of antithesis:

So relocating these Confederate monuments is not about taking something away from someone else. This is not about politics, this is not about blame or retaliation. This is not a naïve quest to solve all our problems at once.

This is, however, about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and, most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves.

2. Anecdote is a brief human interest story (not a joke) to illustrate a larger concept, a technique often used to great advantage by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (as you read in another Forbes post). Mr. Landrieu chose as his subject New Orleans native and jazz musician Terence Blanchard:

Terence went to a high school on the edge of City Park …to get there he had to pass by this monument to a man who fought to deny him his humanity.

He said, “I’ve never looked at them as a source of pride … it’s always made me feel as if they were put there by people who don’t respect us. This is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. It’s a sign that the world is changing.”

3. Rhetorical questions, a technique drawn from Socratic teaching, poses questions that evoke answers to support a theme. Mr. Landrieu posed his questions from the perspective of African American parents trying to explain Robert E. Lee to their fifth grade daughter:

Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?

We all know the answer to these very simple questions.

Socrates, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton—Mitch Landrieu learned well from the masters.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Landrieu’s Language Trumps Controversy: 3 Classic Techniques on Monday, June 5, 2017.