by Peter Watts
Senator Rand Paul is a hero. Or at least that’s how several of the nation’s news organizations would have it. Just for once though, we’re not talking Fox News. The San Francisco Chronicle for example rejoiced with this morning’s headline: “Republican Rand Paul fires up a Berkeley crowd”, while the New York Times compared him with Ronald Reagan, who found Berkeley such a tough audience that he sent in the National Guard.
All the applause would suggest that Senator Paul heroically entered a lion’s den and then persuaded the occupants to roll over and have their tummies tickled. To an extent, that’s just what he did, but this wasn’t a miracle. This was rhetoric at it’s best. Lessons can be learned!
Lions on Leashes
First of all, the audience was tightly controlled. Paul set a clear title for his Berkeley appearance and it was calibrated to the interests of the audience: privacy. He could pretty much guarantee that so long as he kept to the prepared script, the audience would keep a respectful silence. The problems were always going to come with the Q&A.
When we got to the questions however, what did we get? Pre-selected (for which read “heavily vetted”) questions. There was nothing there to open up any embarrassing civil-liberties type areas. Indeed, several of the questions such as “If elected President, would you curtail Executive Power” were directly chosen to enable the speaker to polish-up his credentials.
Millennials are deeply suspicious of state authority. Paul’s chosen topic offered perfect synchronization. Throw in frequent references to cellphones, the web, and the threat posed by a snooping government, and rapt attention was guaranteed. Rand Paul is a clever, and thoughtful speaker. His isolation of this one particular aspect of Libertarian belief was where he and his audience would overlap. The audience were enthralled. So much so that they didn’t notice the giant logical chasm – and opportunity – that Paul was delicately tip-toeing around.
“What you do on your cellphone is none of their damned business”
This line was used twice, and to applause each time. Rand Paul passionately believes that nobody, just nobody has the right to interfere with you and your phone. Except….. the curious amongst us would love to know how that adds up if you are using your phone for some sort of gay dating purposes. If the phone company should manifest devout Christian views, would they have a right to cut you off? After all, Rand Paul also believes shops should have the right to turn away LGBT customers.
This vital question was left unasked, but then again, all the questions had been vetted anyway.
Something that I do personally enjoy about the Rand Paul style is his love of history. He speaks in an academic style – hence he sometimes rambles – and this address was full of quotations from what to many would have been obscure sources:
“Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England,
as I trust shall never be put out.”
Only Rand Paul could get away with Tudor history in a modern American political speech, quoting Archbishop Cranmer’s famous last words as he and the unfortunate Ridley became human barbecue on Bloody Mary’s sixteenth century execution pyre. Again, the quote was perfectly chosen. It’s an academic quote, and this speech was being given in an academic setting to an audience of high academic style. At once the quote supports Paul’s message, and flatters the audience. It winks and insinuates “I’m clever, and I know you’re clever. Let’s both be clever together.” The lions of Berkeley just rolled over and purred. Daniel himself could not have done better.
A Feinstein Love-Fest
Paul went out of his way to pour praise onto a lady with whom he would not normally share much political currency, Senator Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein’s significant if dull speech of the week before came in for substantial praise, right down to Paul’s account of how he walked across to the Senator to congratulate her on it. Again, the Lions purred their approval. Why?
Senator Feinstein is from California. Berkeley is in California. What the audience responded to was the political equivalent of a speaker standing up to praise the home-team. “Go 49ers!!!” It was another subtle little aside, that was calculated to please.
Paul endorsed Snowden!
Almost The absolute heart of the spell however was Rand Paul’s continuous flirtation with Edward Snowden. The first reference came a mere three minutes into the speech, tucked neatly beside Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Paul almost seemed to be flirting with the subject, until out of nowhere, we found ourselves in a comparison between the wrongdoings of Snowden and what Paul perceived to be the wrongdoings of NSA Director, James Clapper.
This strange dance of logic led to the statement that “If Clapper is innocent, then Snowden is innocent.” What just happened? Did Rand Paul declare Edward Snowden innocent? The audience certainly seemed to think so, and responded warmly. In actuality though, Paul did no such thing. He merely posed an interesting question that allowed the audience to gleefully assume that Rand Paul shares their views. Yet more approving purring.
Full marks to Senator Paul. This was a masterful assessment of the audience, and a message fine-tuned to their viewpoint.
There were so many ways in which this appearance at Berkeley could have gone wrong. So many topics where speaker and audience could have clashed. So many difficult questions that could have been asked. Not one of them came to pass. Many are seeing Daniel emerging unscathed from the lion’s den having performed some form of political miracle. Look a little closer though and you’ll see the natural results of a good speech, a well planned message, and above all, a flattered audience.