The Oratory of John McCain

  • Kenneth Fernandez
Part of the Rhetoric, Politics and Society book series (RPS)


This chapter posits that John McCain provides an interesting case for the study of oratory and rhetoric. Having served in the US Senate since 1987 and twice running for President, he is one of the most recognisable figures in modern American politics. McCain and his chief speechwriter Mark Salter have written six books together, and McCain is said to be one of the most quotable people in politics today. McCain’s appeal to voters and the media is in part due to his compelling biographical story. McCain’s military experience and the military experience of his family have frequently led him to adopt a rhetorical strategy that emphasises personal character, such as honour, integrity, and sacrifice.

This chapter also posits that this strategy provides a rhetorical advantage only under certain political contexts and only with certain audiences. Moreover, this strategy lends itself to the mode of persuasion based on the person’s character and credibility (ethos), but often at the expense of other modes of persuasive appeals (i.e., pathos and logos). Furthermore, McCain’s persona as a ‘maverick’ willing to go against his own party also ties into a rhetorical strategy that emphasises character and credibility, rather than on emotional appeals (pathos) or logical appeals (logos). In the pre-9/11 context of the 2000 GOP presidential primary, McCain’s persona as war hero was less valuable in garnering ethos. In addition, the Republican base was less sympathetic to a candidate who boasted about his record of crossing party lines.

By 2008, the Republican Party was more receptive to McCain and rhetoric, in part because of the credibility his military experience provided, and in part because of McCain’s support for the Bush administration and the Iraq war. However, this chapter posits that declining public support for the Iraq war and the severe economic downturn in 2008 made the war hero and maverick rhetorical strategies less effective in persuading a wider audience in a general election.


  1. Aristotle. 2004. Rhetoric. Mineola: Dover.Google Scholar
  2. Balz, D., and H. Johnson. 2009. The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election. New York: Viking.Google Scholar
  3. Ceaser, J.W., G.E. Thurow, J. Tulis, and J.M. Bessette. 1981. The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency. Presidential Studies Quarterly 11 (2): 158–171.Google Scholar
  4. Clayman, S.E. 1992. Caveat Orator: Audience Disaffiliation in the 1988 Presidential Debates. Quarterly Journal of Speech 78 (1): 33–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Crines, A.S. 2013a. The Rhetoric of the Coalition: Governing in the National Interest? Representation 49 (2): 207–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. ———. 2013b. An Analysis of George Galloway’s Oratorical and Rhetorical Impact. Politics 33 (2): 81–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Crowley, M. 2008. Salter Ego. New Republic, July 29.Google Scholar
  8. Demirdöğen, Ü.D. 2010. The Roots of Research in (Political) Persuasion: Ethos, Pathos, Logos and the Yale Studies of Persuasive Communications. International Journal of Social Inquiry 3 (1): 189–201.Google Scholar
  9. Elon University. 2013. North Carolina’s Most Admired People. Elon University, February 24–28. Available from
  10. Fairclough, N. 1996. Rhetoric and Critical Discourse Analysis: A Reply to Titus Ensink and Christoph Sauer. Current Issues in Language & Society 3 (3): 286–289.Google Scholar
  11. Fineman, H. 2008. Mark Salter: McCain’s Closest Aide. Newsweek, July 18.Google Scholar
  12. Flowerdew, J. 2002. Rhetorical Strategies and Identity Politics in the Discourse of Colonial Withdrawal’. Journal of Language and Politics 1 (1): 149–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fridkin, K.L., P.J. Kenney, S.A. Gershon, and G.S. Woodall. 2008. Spinning Debates: The Impact of the News Media’s Coverage of the Final 2004 Presidential Debate. The International Journal of Press/Politics 13 (1): 29–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Garber, K. 2008. Rhetoric and Speaking Style Affect the Clinton-Obama Race. U.S. News & World Report, March 25.Google Scholar
  15. Gavin, W.F. 2011. Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Glass, D.P. 1985. Evaluating Presidential Candidates: Who Focuses on Their Personal Attributes? Public Opinion Quarterly 49 (4): 517–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gorton, W., and J. Diels. 2011. Is Political Talk Getting Smarter? An Analysis of Presidential Debates and the Flynn Effect’. Public Understanding of Science 20 (5): 578–594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gundersen, D.F., and R. Hopper. 1976. Relationships Between Speech Delivery and Speech Effectiveness. Communications Monographs 43 (2): 158–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hart, R.P. 1987. The Sound of Leadership: Presidential Communication in the Modern Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  20. Ivie, R.L., and O. Giner. 2009. American Exceptionalism in a Democratic Idiom: Transacting the Mythos of Change in the 2008 Presidential Campaign’. Communication Studies 60 (4): 359–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kaiser, R.G. 2008. The Curious Mind of John McCain. Washington Post, August 1. Available from
  22. Keeble, A. 2014. The Aggregation of Political Rhetoric in Zeitoun. Comparative American Studies 12 (3): 173–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Lanoue, D.J. 1992. One That Made a Difference: Cognitive Consistency, Political Knowledge, and the 1980 Presidential Debate’. Public Opinion Quarterly 56 (2): 168–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lehrer, J. 2012. Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  25. Leibovich, M. 2008. McCain Battles a Nemesis, the Teleprompter. New York Times, July 6. Available from
  26. Leon, M. 1993. Revealing Character and Addressing Voters’ Needs in the 1992 Presidential Debates: A Content Analysis. Argumentation and Advocacy 30 (2): 88–106.Google Scholar
  27. Lunsford, A.A., and C. Glenn. 1999. Rhetorical Theory and the Teaching of Writing. In On Literacy and Its Teaching: Issues in English Education, ed. G.E. Hawisher and A.O. Soter. Albany: State University of New York.Google Scholar
  28. McCain, J. 1973. John McCain, Prisoner of War: A First-Person Account. U.S. News & World Report, May 14. Available from
  29. ———. 1999a. Faith of Our Fathers: A Family Memoir. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  30. ———. 1999b. Commencement Address. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, May 14.Google Scholar
  31. ———. 2000a. Campaign Town Hall Meeting, February 28.Google Scholar
  32. ———. 2000b. The Cause of Citizenship, January 5. Available from
  33. ———. 2008a. First United States Presidential Debate, September 26.Google Scholar
  34. ———. 2008b. Acceptance of the GOP Presidential Nomination, September 4.Google Scholar
  35. ———. 2008c. Campaign Town Hall Meeting, October 10.Google Scholar
  36. ———. 2008d. McCain to Hispanic Roundtable, March 25.Google Scholar
  37. ———. 2008e. Third United States Presidential Debate, October 15.Google Scholar
  38. ———. 2014. Floor Statement on Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Interrogation Methods, December 9.Google Scholar
  39. McCormick, S., and M. Stuckey. 2013. Presidential Disfluency: Literacy, Legibility, and Vocal Political Aesthetics in the Rhetorical Presidency. Review of Communication 13 (1): 3–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. McCroskey, J.C. 1969. A Summary of Experimental Research on the Effects of Evidence in Persuasive Communication. Quarterly Journal of Speech 55 (2): 169–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. McCroskey, J.C., and J.J. Teven. 1999. Goodwill: A Reexamination of the Construct and Its Measurement. Communications Monographs 66 (1): 90–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Miller, N.L., and W.B. Stiles. 1986. Verbal Familiarity in American Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speeches and Inaugural Addresses (1920–1981). Social Psychology Quarterly 49 (1): 72–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Montopoli, B. 2008. John McCain’s 100 Years in Iraq. CBS News, April 1. Available from
  44. Murphy, J.M. 2000. The Heroic Tradition in Presidential Rhetoric. Rhetoric and Public Affairs 3 (3): 466–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. ———. 2009. Political Economy and Rhetorical Matter. Rhetoric & Public Affairs 12 (2): 303–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Norrander, B. 2006. The Attrition Game: Initial Resources, Initial Contests and the Exit of Candidates During the US Presidential Primary Season. British Journal of Political Science 36 (3): 487–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Ostermeier, E. 2012. McCain, Rubio, GOP Dominate Broadcast Media Coverage of US Senators in 2012. Available from
  48. Paletz, D.L., and R.J. Vinegar. 1977. Presidents on Television: The Effects of Instant Analysis. Public Opinion Quarterly 41 (4): 488–497.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Paolino, P., and D.R. Shaw. 2001. Lifting the Hood on the Straight-talk Express Examining the McCain Phenomenon. American Politics Research 29 (5): 483–506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Parker, J. 2008. McCain Accepts Nomination, Says He’ll Fight to Restore Party Principles. ABC News, September 5. Available from
  51. Parry-Giles, T., and S.J. Parry-Giles. 2001. Reassessing the State of Political Communication in the United States. Argumentation and Advocacy 37 (3): 158.Google Scholar
  52. Pu, C. 2007. Discourse Analysis of President Bush’s Speech at Tsinghua University, China. Intercultural Communication Studies 16 (1): 205–216.Google Scholar
  53. Rummel, E. 1979. Isocrates’ Ideal of Rhetoric: Criteria of Evaluation’. The Classical Journal 75 (1): 25–35.Google Scholar
  54. Savoy, J. 2010. Lexical Analysis of US Political Speeches’. Journal of Quantitative Linguistics 17 (2): 123–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Short, J.C., and T.B. Palmer. 2007. The Application of DICTION to Content Analysis Research in Strategic Management. Organizational Research Methods 11 (4): 727–752.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Simon, D.M., and C.W. Ostrom. 1989. The Impact of Televised Speeches and Foreign Travel on Presidential Approval. Public Opinion Quarterly 53 (1): 58–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Talhelm, T., J. Haidt, S. Oishi, X. Zhang, F.F. Miao, and S. Chen. 2015. Liberals Think More Analytically (More “WEIRD”) than Conservatives’. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41 (2): 250–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Tompkins, P.K., and E.J. Pappas. 1967. Speech in the Senate ‘65’. Communication Quarterly 15 (2): 3–4.Google Scholar
  59. USA Today/Gallup. 2012. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama Most Admired in 2012. Gallup, December 19–22. Available from
  60. Wallace, D.F. 2008. McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope. New York: Back Bay Books.Google Scholar
  61. Williams, U., and S.P. Williams. 2014. Txttool: Utilities for Text Analysis in Stata. Stata Journal 14 (4): 817–829.Google Scholar
  62. Wodak, R., R. De Cillia, M. Reisigl, and K. Liebhart. 1999. The Discursive Construction of National Identity. Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kenneth Fernandez
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Social Sciences Charleston CampusCollege of Southern NevadaLas VegasUSA

Personalised recommendations