The best tip in this book is subliminal. Though nowhere does he say so, in light of the number and caliber of Churchillian quips planted in "How to Win Arguments," William Rusher apparently believes, as I do, that familarity with the great man's career confers rhetorical skill by osmosis. To illustrate the value of understatement, he gives us Churchill's response to Hitler's "exaggerated claims as to the number of British planes that were being shot down in the Battle of Britain . . . [Churchill] pretended to worry about the German dictator's good name: 'If Herr Hitler does not cease these misrepresentations," he warned, 'his reputation for veracity may be impugned.'"
Another choice Churchillism demonstrates nothing more than the power of quick-wittedness, a quality that Rusher acknowledges cannot be taught. "Answering a question in the House of Commons. . . Churchill once reduced his questioner to spluttering rage. Whereupon the master orator turned avuncular and solicitous: 'The honorable gentleman,' Churchill counseled genially, 'really ought not to generate more indignation than he can conveniently contain.'"
Though few can match Churchill's half-century and more of inspired public arguing -- Norman Thomas, whom Rusher slights, was probably the adroitest American controversialist during the same period -- Rusher has impressive credentials. Now publisher of William F. Buckley's National yreview, he started out as a Wall Street lawyer. He has appeared regularly on the public televison program "The Advocates" and debates the likes of Eugene McCarthy and Charles Morgan (former Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union).
But Rusher hints at more than he delivers. "Properly trained," he claims, "a person with no innate talent for arguing should be able to win quite a lot of his arguments, and to battle the world champion [whoever he or she is] to a draw 100 percent of the time." This is a heady prospect, but it recedes a few pages later when Rusher posits his "basic principle of successful argumentation": "Never undertake to argue a case whose fundamental principles and factual support are not known to you, in advance, to be sufficient to guarantee either victory or, at the very least, a draw." Which is to say little more than don't get into an argument that looks bad for you.
Rusher does go on to suggest methods of shaping an argument so as to make it more winnable. For example, one should scrutinize the proposition up for debate to make sure it doesn't harbor disadvantages for his side. The conservative Rusher once refused to take on Sen. Jacob Javits over the topic, "Is the Hard Right a Danger to America?" and insisted on a reformulation that would put neither man on the defensive: "Is the Hard Right or Hard Left the Greater Danger to America?"
But Rusher says little about what happens when the preliminary sparring is out of the way. (This concentration on framing the issue probably reflects the uphill struggle that Rusher and his conservative colleagues waged for so many years to bring America around to their views: When you are an unfashionable minority, circumspection about public appearances is warranted.) He offers a few sketchy samples of his own scoring -- notably an "Advocates" episode in which he slew both Morris Udall and Ramsey Clark -- but no sustained analysis of rhetorical dynamics. What is needed is a substantial excerpt from a debate transcript, embellished with Rusher's strategic comments.
Rusher's preoccupation with form, however, yields some trenchant political insights. After tagging the flaws intrinsic to any format in which a speaker fields questions from the audience -- "the central difficulty is that the person questioned practically always has the last word" -- Rusher transfers his misgivings to the presidential press conference. "White House correspondents are a tough and able bunch, and the President is well and truly quizzed; but the high cards are all still in his hands. He can recognize one reporter and disregard another; he can make an answer as long or short, humorous or serious, as he wishes; he can allow a 'follow-up question' or immediately recognize another reporter. . ." In short, the format consigns so much power to the president that it is bound to be "deeply frustrating" to most reporters.
The book is a commissary of argumentative anecdotes. One of the grandest slams I have ever read comes courtesy of Michael Harrington, in a chapter collecting the advice of Rusher's debating friends. "When debating Earl Browder, the former head of the American Communist Party who had been expelled in the forties, [Max] Schachtmann conjured up the names of all the Communist leaders in Eastern Europe who had not only been deposed but executed. He then pointed at Browder and said, "There, but for the accident of geography, stands a corpse.'"