Below is the final exam for the political rhetoric course I teach at GW. I've been told students have fun answering the question, I certainly have fun writing it.
What's your answer?
Modern Political Communication and Rhetoric
After four years at GW you launch into a successful career as a strategist, author and pundit. The work is fun and financially rewarding.
Over a lot of years in the political business you accumulate a lot of stories, some of which are funny, some sad, some that beg larger questions. And over the years you tell these stories to friends and family, and you make students at your alma mater sit through them whenever you come back to speak. And inevitably people tell you stories are moving and funny and make them think and you should write a book someday. And inevitably you believe them. But rather than write a book you decide to write a TV show (you after all were inspired to go into politics by “The West Wing”). You figure that the DC political show has been done to death, and that the lessons you’ve learned apply to small towns as well as Washington; what makes your stories interesting isn’t that they are about politics but rather that they are about people.
So you write a pilot about small town politics in the fictional town of West Plymouth and work some connections to get it read. It gets read and optioned by HBO.
One of the first challenges is finding a suitable location, a town small enough to make the point that all politics is local (really local), that is close enough to a big city to make it easy for the cast and crew to get to, and that is willing to be taken over for a few weeks by a production company shooting exteriors and establishing shots. You join a location scout and one of the show’s producers and go looking for an authentic and convenient town that can serve as West Plymouth.
About half way between Philadelphia and DC you find New Providence.
New Providence is perfect. There is a mix of the very old and very new, setting up obvious points of conflict between the old-timers and the yuppies. There’s a diner that serves locals and a “coffee and tea emporium” down the street that serves the same muffins but for twice as much. There’s a hardware store, a small grocery store, an antique store (used to be a consignment store, but you can charge rich tourists more if you call it “authentic” rather and “used”). A new-ager has moved in and set up a yoga studio. There’s a bar mostly populated by locals during the week and tourists for lunch on weekends. Completely randomly, the coach of DC United who also happens to be a painter has opened a studio and art gallery on Main Street.
The producers meet with city officials, cut a deal and pretty soon the town is taken over by TV crews. The crews leave within a few weeks and the town is back to normal. Part of the deal is that the true identity of the town is kept secret.
The show is a hit and runs for several seasons, sells lots of DVDs and is pirated like mad. Because it was your idea you have a cameo role in the show, turning up from time to time as the grouchy mechanic who runs a garage and tow service that seems to specialize in obscure and unreliable British sports cars.
Eventually all good things come to an end, including the show. You get a check from time to time but otherwise it’s one more random stop in your career.
Several years go by and you realize that you’re done with politics. It’s not that you’re bitter or disillusioned, you’re just done. The checks you got from the show eventually added up to a fair amount of cash, and you think “since the money came from the show and the show was based in New Providence, and I played a mechanic on the show, it only seems to make sense that I use the money to buy a garage in New Providence.” (That the idea makes sense is an indication of just how done with DC you are). You close your firm, you sell your condo, and you buy the old garage in New Providence that served as the garage in the show. Because all garages have a dog, you get a dog and name him Tock. You buy a couple of old British sports cars, and spend your days tinkering on your cars, tinkering on friends’ cars, and telling actual customers that you’re just too busy to take on any new work right now. You don’t tell anyone you’re the guy who wrote the show about their town and they don’t recognize you, to most folks you’re the guy who bought the garage and who has the great dog with a weird name.
New Providence is a good place to be, but could use some help. The high school could use some repairs and the athletic fields are a bit of a mess. The infrastructure is pretty old and the age is beginning to show. Nothing drastic, no bridges collapsing or anything, but things are getting frayed around the edges. You notice but don’t much care – you’re a little frayed around the edges yourself.
About a year into your new life HBO decides to run a reunion special of West Plymouth and issue the old DVDs with exclusive never before seen footage. As part of the package they want to reveal the actual town’s name.
The HBO executives argue that revealing the name of the town could be a huge boon – the town could put up a sign saying “Welcome to New Providence and West Plymouth” and list the name of the mayor of the real and fictional towns. They could rename a store or two after the names of the stores on the show, basically turn the town into a TV set of itself. New people would come and eat in the diner and buy commemorative t-shirts, all of which would mean more tax dollars to pay for needed improvements.
Not everyone loves the idea. Some folks argue that the interest will fade and New Providence will turn into another old empty lot when interest inevitably fades – it will be worse off than before. Besides, these are real people who live in a real place; they don’t want to be turned into props for some publicity stunt.
You don’t care one way or the other.
One morning while sitting at the diner, drinking cheap coffee from a chipped mug, you overhear two locals debating the issue. When one says he just went back and watched all the shows you quickly finish your coffee, tuck your Communicator under your arm (more on that in a moment), and duck out the door – you don’t want to be recognized.
But all good things must come to an end.
On the street you run into one of the HBO folks who immediately grabs you and gives you the fake hug that politicians and television producers seem to learn in some secret lab in the New Mexico desert. He pesters and prods you to help persuade the town to take the deal. He offers you more money and he flatters and annoys you into saying “I’ll think about it.”
As the producer heads for a $5 cup of hand squeezed organic karmically balanced feng shui all natural green tea with a hint of lemon and free range honey at the “emporium,” you shake your head and to head to the garage to see you can’t finally fix the speedometer on your 1974 Triumph Spitfire. As you turn the guy from the diner who just spent three days watching the damn show nearly plows into you. And of course he recognizes you. And of course he thinks you ruined his town. Your snotty, condescending, too cute by half, patronizing, absurd mockery of real America makes his blood boil. And that you decided to take on your own fictional role in his actual town just makes it worse. You owe it to him and everyone else in town to make the HBO people go away once and for all.
You see no choice but to get involved – better to have half the town hate you than all of it.
The final deal with HBO – the agreement to go public, votes on the new signs and marketing, new zoning rules that will allow a certain level of exploitation and inevitable tourist absurdity – goes before the city council in three weeks. The vote will follow the only scheduled open meeting between now and then. There are two options: pass the new rules or block them. There are no compromises to be struck or ‘third ways’ to be found.
The town has one paper, The Communicator, a weekly run by M.E. Sprengelmeyer. M.E. is a former reporter in DC who you know a bit from your time in politics. Like most reporters he got laid off, and like some he found a little town with a little paper that needed running. He writes about school sports and town events (when the New Providence FHA team won the state title, it was a very big deal), but mostly uses the paper as an excuse to write a weekly column about whatever occurs to him. M.E. also collects accordions (he describes himself as a self-taught rock and roll accordion player – tells people he found, and played, an accordion in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces when he was covering the Gulf War) and he is a hilarious poker player.
There are four members of the town council. The mayor votes to break ties. That means votes can be 4-0, 3-1, or 3-2 because a 2-2 vote would force the mayor to decide the winner.
Jeff Miller owns the one bar in town. It’s a local place, not fancy but mostly clean. The kind of place you can sit at the bar, have a burger and beer and watch whatever is on ESPN without anyone bothering you. There is a small stage for the occasional band or show, typically friends of Jeff’s or whoever M.E. can get to join an accordion-led jam session. Jeff sponsors a local little league team, does his part in the community, and is generally a low-key guy. He’s on the council because civic participation is a good thing to do, and to keep the rules from either getting too restrictive (he does sell booze for a living) or too weird. It’s the perfect local bar. No one is sure where Jeff’s from, he’s not an urban refugee like you are, but he’s also not a local who traces his roots back however many generations this town goes.
John Philip is one of those guys who traces his family roots back to the founding of the town. John owns the hardware store, and holds forth on all that is wrong with modern society to anyone who’ll listen. He’s the lead organizer of the Memorial Day events, he’s a veteran and his dad was among the first people in Hiroshima after the US dropped the bomb in WW II. He is the guy for whom the phrase “cut off your nose to spite your face” was invented.
Kim Deal is one of those people Philip can’t stand. She owns the “coffee and tea emporium” on Main Street that sells teas, coffee in presses and espresso machines that are over-engineered and cost more to repair than your car. There are artsy teapots for sale, some wind chimes and dream catchers, that sort of thing. She was a successful real estate agent in Washington, specializing in high end condos and luxury buildings; she tells people that she got tired of the money chase and the endlessly pointless small talk and pretense that is Washington (“people in Washington wear masks to hide their masks, it’s worse than a lack of depth or soul, Washington lacks even any meaningful surface…”) That her departure from DC coincided with the collapse of the condo market there is, from her telling, coincidental (“it was a sign, a blessing really…”) She calls herself spiritual but has a hard time explaining exactly she believes in. She has also maintained her real estate license and does a pretty good business selling and renting homes in New Providence.
Sarah Warren is a history teacher at New Providence high. Her son grew up in New Providence and graduated from New Providence high. Warren got involved in politics as an outgrowth of being an involved parent and because she thinks it is the sort of thing that history teachers ought to do. She was active in the PTA because her son was a student, she ran for the local school board to ensure that books weren’t banned from the school library and that “intelligent design” wasn’t taught in science classes. Serving on the City Council was the next logical step. To the extent she has a political ideology it is best described as “pragmatic progressive” (or in the eyes of some, “limousine liberal”).
Harry Mitchell is the mayor. He’s a good guy, runs the diner, and likes being called The Mayor. He likes the town and the folks who live there, likes throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the little league season, and running the grill at the Memorial Day celebration. He likes to govern by consensus and is good at getting people around a table and affably working things out – “what this debate needs is a little pie, why don’t we move this meeting to a booth at the diner and we can figure something out” is his preferred (and often successful) approach. Mitchell likes being the mayor of a town in which that solution can work; New Providence is a big enough place to have problems, but small enough that they can usually be talked through to an amicable solution. As you might expect, he dislikes voting to break ties, he prefers to either support something early in the hopes the decision will be a near-consensus, or when the outcome is a foregone conclusion. He likes to be the reconciler, not the decider.
What are you going to do, and why are you going to do it?
In your answer be sure to indicate who your audience is, and why; how you intend to approach the campaign, and why; and how you are going to frame the debate and why.
Focus on strategy and approach rather than tactics and tools – for example, if you are going to hand out fliers describe their tone, but you don’t have to write them.
Your ideas must be feasible and reasonable.
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