‘Denial’ of book success

In his first — and one hopes, last — publication entitled “Denial and Deception,” author Alan Kennedy-Shaffer ’06 tackles the relationship between presidential rhetoric and public opinion with an extended analysis of the Bush administration’s case for the invasion of Iraq. A gratuitously published expansion on his senior essay, the book is divided into three sections: the first on the history of rhetoric, the second a survey of the Bush administration’s public comments with regard to the War on Terror, and the third an intensive statistical analysis of those comments and their relationship to American public opinion in the past five years. The initial segment is informative and relatively interesting and enjoyable: Kennedy-Shaffer gives a reasonably complete background of leadership rhetoric, its use, and its role in determining world events. He even gives a comprehensive overview of the most important empirical studies related to rhetoric, which promises to be relevant as he embarks on his own ambitious rhetorical case study.

Alas, Kennedy-Shaffer spends the remainder of the book on textual and graphical analysis, patronizingly instructing readers on how to interpret the plethora of graphs which he has so thoughtfully appended. The book’s tone is much akin to poring over a pamphlet of pie charts and histograms while listening to a statistician droning on interminably about what each data point means. The following sentence is representative of Kennedy-Shaffer’s writing style: “Having already extracted a significant amount of information from the graphs just by looking at them, I use a common statistical package to produce descriptive statistics for each of the variables and variable permutations, requesting the range, minimum value, maximum value, mean, standard error, and standard deviation statistic for each one.”

While it is possible that a few of Kennedy-Shaffer’s readers may not have taken Intro to Stats, it is a fair assumption that most of his readers will have some understanding of descriptive statistics if their interest actually lies in the subject matter he is discussing. For these readers, the author’s constant explication must become exceedingly tedious.

Kennedy-Shaffer’s myopic approach arguably relies too heavily on statistical explanations, rather than judiciously employing statistics to buttress his overarching argument — namely, that Bush misled America and has suffered in the polls as a consequence. Frequently his argument and his statistical analysis become muddled, as he alternately tries to make the same point using various statistics and tries to use the same statistic to illustrate various points. The result is that he frequently retreads the same ground of his argument, wearying readers who may by this point be tempted to put down the book altogether.

Sometimes, the referenced graphs don’t even indicate any pertinent or useful data, as the author confesses in one notably candid yet ever-condescending sentence: “The first table produced, titled Linear Regressions: Descriptive Statistics, reveals nothing new; in fact, it contains no new information whatsoever.” The sentence is then followed by a parenthetical citing this table and directing the reader to its page — never mind the fact that the reader has just been informed of the graph’s utter inutility. Readers may get the sense that graphs are merely included to fill space on the page as opposed to having any legitimate purpose within the text.

The major problem with this book is that it strives to examine the complex correlation between presidential rhetoric, public opinion and foreign policy with regard to a specific event — the war in Iraq — which, as Kennedy-Shaffer repeatedly laments, seems to have no end in sight. Yet the author continually speaks of Bush’s tenure as president as if his presidential legacy were a foregone conclusion and of the war in Iraq as all but a failure. History has yet to judge both President Bush’s administration and America’s operations in Iraq, and until then studies such as Kennedy-Shaffer’s can be neither objective nor truly practical. Yale history professor John Gaddis compares historical and political analysis to the famous Groucho Marx line — “outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read” — terming events that are still transpiring or being resolved “inside of the dog” history or history that cannot be properly analyzed because its students are too close to the actual events. This lack of historical distance can bias an analyst, skewing his perceptions and coloring any conclusions he draws from his study. Kennedy-Shaffer makes his anti-Bush bias all too apparent in what he otherwise claims to be an academic and independent study of presidential rhetoric, introducing a blatant bias to the text.

Coming from a publishing house that prides itself on being able to “publish many manuscripts that are too risky for other publishers,” Kennedy-Shaffer’s first foray into the world of academic political analysis comes to bookstores with dubious credibility. If inside of a dog it’s too dark too read, that’s where this book belongs.