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The Nose

Ars Rhetorica

Posted 11/21/2001

"The press is pretty sneaky," warned U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, launching into a guest-speaking appearance at Towson University on Nov. 13. The Nose snickered guiltily as the Baltimore County Republican asked the audience to keep an eye out for the Fourth Estate, and to please notify him should anyone "see them coming in the back." We were already ensconced among the 80 or so barely-voting-aged youngsters in professor Richard Vatz's class on political rhetoric, a class aptly named "Persuasion."

This was the umpteenth time Ehrlich has made an appearance to speak on the subject of political speaking. Think what you will of his politics, the man is keenly charismatic and, by extension, has the public-persuasiveness thing down cold. On this occasion, he'd been asked by Vatz to discuss the government's reaction to the recent terrorist attacks. What was putatively a lecture on the art of persuasion, however, quickly and smoothly morphed into a GOP love-in and an endorsement of George W. Bush's post-SEPT. 11 performance. Should Maryland's highest-profile Republican follow through on the rumors that he's running for governor, it was a glimmer of what we can expect from candidate Ehrlich in 2002.

At a time when most Americans are living with fear--of evildoers, to quote President Bush--the shirt-sleeved, earnest-eyed, and ever quick-with-the-down-home-quip Ehrlich is playing the values card, the old Republican standby. These days, as Honest Bob made clear, trust and goodness are what matter most. Trust, goodness, and principle. Vatz's students couldn't have given him a better forum had the session been scripted. Framed by the Grand Old Party's most beloved issues (character! defense! capitalism!), the discourse played right to Ehrlich's strengths. Ah, rhetoric and persuasion.

With Sept. 11 as the backdrop for the day's discussion (Ehrlich said "September 12," to a chorus of whispered corrections), the congressperson asked students to cite the political leadership qualities they look for in troubled times. The first response was "honesty," and for a half-hour that's where the conversation stayed, leading us to wonder whether Ehrlich wasn't jumping up and down inside with glee. During his initial bid for Congress in 1994, Mom Ehrlich told The Sun her son was "so honest it hurts." The quote made a front-page headline in the paper, and Ehrlich has made it a tenet of his political persona ever since. In 1999, he voted to impeach President Bill Clinton not because of political differences--he considers himself a "moderate conservative," after all--but because Clinton lied under oath. "I think he failed as a leader in that sense, because honesty is an important feature of leadership," Ehrlich told Vatz's class.

The students reeled off other leadership skills too: communication with the public, discretion in sharing vs. withholding information, judgment, the ability to delegate, coalition-building, accountability. With Ehrlich's prodding, they measured Bush on every front. Ehrlich first conceded that the current president is pretty lousy on television, but tooted Bush's horn--and the Republican mantra on weapons and wealth--unabashedly thereafter.

"He defined the enemy, he defined the terms of the war. He was honest up-front, and he defined the stakes for the civilized world. It's about capitalism, freedom, and democracy. It's about going to the mall," Ehrlich said. "[Terrorists] are trying to bring their own weird, self-destructive view to us, and the civilized world has to try to destroy them. There is no option. This is a threat to us every day. We're in it for the long term, and particularly the people in this room are going to be impacted by it."

The Nose doesn't necessarily share Ehrlich's passion here, but we do give him an A+ for Applied Rhetoric. Clearly this roomful of wide eyes and nodding heads was swayed, and we'll understand if the professor has him back for yet another visit.

Meantime, as we weigh next year's gubernatorial candidates, we now know Ehrlich is raring to show he has just the right talents for the present crisis. We're not sure whether we should hope the crisis continues or not.

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