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CFTC Speeches Boring? Not if They’re From Bart

December 14, 2010

“One day in early August 1977, at 1:15 in the morning, Elvis—“the King”—arrived with some guests at “Libertyland,” the amusement park in Memphis, Tennessee, wearing a blue jumpsuit. He wore a black leather belt with a ginormous turquoise-studded buckle. The King had rented Libertyland until 7 in the morning. While he was there, he repeatedly rode the Zippin Pippin—Libertyland’s roller coaster, and lost his buckle. That was the last time anyone saw Elvis in public. He died eight days later on August 16th.”

–  Remarks before the Washington Agricultural Roundtable, CFTC Speeches, 2/10/2009

“I’m no Ryan Secrest (at least, I hope not) . . .”

–  Speech Before the Commodity Markets Council, 2/8/2008

Photo from Some rights reserved.

In fact, to judge by the transcripts of his speeches — to say nothing of his flowing locks, square jaw, and bronzed complexion — CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton is a lot more like a Ryan Secrest than we’re liable to expect from the head of a major federal regulatory agency. And the speeches themselves — well, they’re a lot closer to being like the Zippin Pippin than we’re accustomed to when listening to a government talking head hunched over the lectern.

Chilton’s speeches are indeed a roller coaster ride.  They feature titles like “Wicked Awesome,” “Turkey Soup,” and “Flash Gordon.”  Elaborate metaphors and weird anecdotes abound.  Allusions to pop culture are interspersed with references to classical art and literature.  In one 140-word sequence from his speech “De Principatibus,” (before the Argus Media Summit, 10/21/2009), Chilton jumps from Leonardo di Vinci to Michelangelo to Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston to Sam Houston to Thomas Jefferson, finally landing on Machiavelli.

He employs all manner of figures of speech, including puns (“False Profits“), alliteration (“Rules to Rein in a Racket“), and elaborate similes (“Maybe the process has looked a little like soup to some of you but, even it is soup, the broth is becoming clearer and clearer”).  He draws on anecdotes from his personal life to illustrate points about speculative trading or the role of technology in the markets.  He is a coiner of phrases: “Ponzimonium,” “Massive Passives.”

Chilton’s signature move, though, is the pop culture reference.  Reading through his speeches from the last couple of years, we see allusions to movies (“Casino Royale,” “Thelma and Louise,” “The Terminator,” the rock opera “Tommy,” “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,”  “Unstoppable,” “The Blind Side,” “Big,” “The Break Up,” “Speed,” “Wayne’s World”); television (“The Andy Griffith Show,” “Saturday Night Live,” “American Idol,” “Survivor,” “Cops,” “Girls Next Door,” “Star Trek”), popular music (Bruce Springsteen, Styx, Chicago, the Eagles, the Who, U2, Elvis, David Bowie), and a variety of celebrities (Tiger Woods, Stephen Colbert, Tom Hanks, Laurel and Hardy, Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, Mario Andretti, Kevin Bacon, Steven Spielberg, Kermit the Frog).

Sometimes extended and explicit, sometimes fleeting and oblique (the David Bowie allusion consists merely of Chilton’s deliberate stutter on a word: “ch-ch-ch-ch-changes”) — these references are often more than mere window dressing. They can also serve a rhetorical function in that they allow Chilton to connect with his audience, to establish what Aristotle called ethos — here, his persona as a regular human being talking to other human beings. Of course, they also allow him to counterbalance the arid abstraction of topics like the regulation of derivatives and the proposed establishment of swap data repositories. And they give him a way of framing or illustrating these abstract concepts with images that are concrete and familiar, and thus more comprehensible.

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