Mayor Sheila Dixon: Rhetorical NotaClueism

–Richard E. Vatz

There is little a rhetorician can add to the excellent extant political analysis on WBAL and in The Baltimore Sun regarding Mayor Sheila Dixon’s decision to keep her $3,700 pay raise at a time of many of her constituents’ recession-induced penury. Rhetorically, however, there are some observations that are necessary to state.

The Mayor certainly has a history of ethically questionable decisions, from furs to her sister’s employment, all of which cause her little trouble in a one-party hear-no-evil, see-no-evil town. But her rhetoric, never very sophisticated since there is little need to mystify audiences when they are not prone to demand propriety, in the current case may be sufficiently ham-handed to lose her an election down the road.

Her defense for taking the terribly-timed raise this year, as opposed to giving it to charity even as a one-time concession, is as follows: “To be honest with you, no, 2 and ½ percent, based on what I do seven days a week, 24 hours [a day], trying to raise a family, a daughter in college.” More self-pityingly and aggressively, she stated that “Not doing what I do seven days a week, 24 hours a day, trying to raise a family and having a daughter in college…people don’t expect us to get paid. They want us do to this for free. That’s fine and good and no one would mind doing that, but then we would have to find other jobs.”

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Her “Let them eat cake” (apocryphal quote attributed to Marie-Antoinette in the 18th century regarding the starving of the French) condescension, echoed by some others in Baltimore’s City Council, is the type of self-important, self-obsessed rhetoric that most politicians circa early 21st century know to avoid.

One wonders how any politician in a major American city could not have learned that making over $150,000 and poormouthing one’s own circumstances will strike nearly everyone who is struggling in a terrible economy as outrageously arrogant and contemptible.

Successful politicians learn early in their careers how to disingenuously claim that they “feel your pain.” It is the rare politician who becomes mayor of a city the size of Baltimore who hasn’t a clue how to at least pretend in all situations that his or her priority is his or her constituency.

Politicians without a rhetorical clue come a cropper. Just ask Governor Rod Blagojevich. Even in a one-party environment there is a price to pay for rhetorical self-indulgence when combined with a zero-sum game financial relationship with one’s constituents.

Professor Vatz is professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University

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