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Clichés are generally thought of as overused or trite
expressions, like “every cloud has a silver lining” or
“nobody is perfect,” and hence given scant attention. Yet
many clichés are what Richard Rorty calls “dead
metaphors,” once new and provocative turns of phrase
that have become commonplace. In the debates, President
Bush was especially fond of using clichés. During
the first debate, he used the phrase “it’s hard work” (or
some variation of it) at least 11 times. This cliché was
important for two reasons. First, it acted as a stand-in for
a well-articulated answer to questions, because instead
of detailing his plan for victory, the President said, “it’s
hard work.” Second, clichés work because they connect
with an audience. In a nation populated by citizens heavily indebted to the Protestant Ethic, which values work
and assures the beleaguered that if they work hard success
will be theirs, suggesting hard work is an effective
persuasive strategy. Indeed, clichés call for audiences to
make a psychological transformation: because they
value hard work in their lives, they will also value it in
Iraq; and because they know that it is a sin not to work
hard, to turn away from the President’s challenges that
the U.S. must work hard is to sin. The cliché of “hard
work” is therefore powerful because it is nearly impossible
to rebut clichés. The most effective strategy is to
counter a cliché with another, but then the quality of the
debate deteriorates to sound-bites and platitudes.

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