The Status And Function Of Rhetorical Anecdotes In Presidential Debates From 1980--2004

Christopher J. Oldenburg

The status and function of anecdotal evidence is in need of reassessment in relation to the televised presidential debates. Whereas informal logicians and scholars of presidential debates have dismissed anecdotes as insufficient forms of evidence, I contend that these condensed stories serve three interrelated rhetorical and argumentative functions which deserve more serious and extensive consideration. (1) Anecdotes are narrative-based strategies that engender representations of presidential debaters through the trope of synecdoche. By ramifying the anecdote's synecdochic properties into the three inter-animating levels of personal, protagonistic, and polemical synecdoche, critics can use these levels as entry nodes for analyzing how rhetorical anecdotes induce 'part for whole' inferences. A close analysis of anecdotes told by such presidential candidates, as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and George W. Bush illustrates that these synecdochic portrayals function as (2) ethotic arguments for candidates while (3) simultaneously promoting identification with the audience. My position is that, among the many things the anecdote does, its key function is to reveal character. This is especially important since character has come to stand in for reasoned debate in contemporary politics.

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