SF State News {University Communications}

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New on the SF State bookshelf

January 16, 2008 -- Four days before the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, a young Joseph Tuman was introduced to the power of rhetoric in political campaigns.

Cover of Joseph Tuman's newest book.

Tuman opens his latest book, "Political Communication in American Campaigns," with his childhood recollection of watching Senator Robert Kennedy deliver a rousing speech off the back of a railway wagon, during a stop off in Turlock, California.

After Tuman's brief trip down memory lane, what follows is a lucid and insightful analysis of the inner workings of political campaigns. Tuman, professor of communication studies, draws on a lifetime of work in academia and as a campaign worker, speech writer, media consultant and political analyst for television news.

The book includes three strands: campaign speeches and oratory; the rhetorical dimension of campaign debates; and the political use of mass media, including political blogs and YouTube videos. Case studies include Abraham Lincoln's debates, Nixon's speeches and the 2004 Swiftvets campaign against John Kerry, to name a few.

Tuman aims to arm readers with a healthy skepticism about the way political campaigns communicate their messages and to encourage voters to be critical consumers of what they read, hear and watch.

Below is an excerpt from the book where Tuman describes Bobby Kennedy's 1968 speech in Turlock and how Kennedy joked about eating turkey for every meal that day:

The crowd was laughing and cheering wildly. Even his detractors were screaming and smiling and waving. The man who would be president had dropped into our small town, encountering a crowd that was probably filled with more political foes than friends -- and yet somehow managed to make everybody happy.

To this day, I remember looking at Lu and leaning close to him to ask: "How did he know?"

Outside of the small university in town, Turlock was best known for its poultry and, really, for its copious production of turkeys. But Bobby Kennedy was from the East Coast; how could he have known that about us?

My parents rode with Kennedy as far as Fresno and then got a ride back to town. I waited for my father on our front porch and badgered him with questions about Kennedy and turkeys the moment he was out of the car. "How did he know about turkeys and Turlock? How did he know he should do that for us?"

My father smiled and explained that Kennedy had been on the train, sitting near him and my mother just after it had left Modesto (directly north of Turlock). He overheard a reporter near him making fun of something that he had read in the local newspapers. An advertisement for turkeys. The reporter then sang a jingle that had (unfortunately) been popular on the radio: "Turkeys from Turlock, Turkeys from Turlock!"

According to my father, Kennedy was amused and intrigued by the ad jingle, and asked more questions about turkeys and poultry and the political make-up of the area. On the spot, he jotted a few notes on a pad.

The result was the introduction to the speech we heard at the train platform. It was my introduction in a meaningful way to Bobby Kennedy and other political candidates whose rhetoric I would come to study and analyze.

Although I didn't know it at the time, it was also my introduction to the concept of crafting rhetorical messages for a specific audience, something that for the next three-plus decades I would study and even participate in as a speechwriter and later as a media analyst for political campaigns.

-- Joseph S. Tuman, "Political Communication in American Campaigns" (Sage, 2007) excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher.

-- Elaine Bible

-- Michael Bruntz


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