Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez did something extraordinary last week. After she was verbally attacked by a Republican colleague, she used it to elevate her argument far beyond the personal circumstances of the incident. She demonstrated the power of the pivot, a rhetorical jujitsu move that can transform a speech and leave an audience deeply moved, even transformed.

Here’s what happened: Ocasio Cortez was climbing the steps of the Capitol Building when she was approached by Ted Yoho, a Republican representative from Florida. Then, as she says, Yoho “put his finger in my face, he called me disgusting, he called me crazy, he called me out of my mind, and he called me dangerous.” She told him he was rude and continued into the building. Then Yoho was overheard by a reporter muttering to himself, “Fucking bitch.”

After the incident was reported in the media, Yoho offered the usual “non-apology apology,” where he spoke of his passion and the fact that he’s a husband and a father of daughters. Later, Ocasio Cortez rose in the House on a matter of personal privilege and delivered what has already been called one of the most extraordinary extemporaneous speeches made in that chamber.

She began by recounting the incident and brushing off its impact on her. “It’s just another day, right?” she described her initial reaction. (This is the first power move in this speech. Focusing on the offense would have been completely valid but would have narrowed the speech’s relevance. It would have made it all about her.)

“But then yesterday, Representative Yoho decided to come to the floor of the House of Representatives and make excuses for his behavior, and that I could not let go.”

What particularly bothered Ocasio Cortez was Yoho’s reference to his family. “Mr. Yoho mentioned that he has a wife and two daughters. I am two years younger than Mr. Yoho’s youngest daughter,” she said. “I am someone’s daughter too. My father, thankfully, is not alive to see how Mr. Yoho treated his daughter.” At that point, you could see her emotions rising. And she could have stopped here, and it would have been an effective statement of offense. But then she seized upon the opportunity to broaden the argument, and to connect it back to her offender, and the people he clearly cares about. She pivots.

“In using that language in front of the press, he gave permission to use that language against his wife, his daughters, women in his community,” Ocasio Cortez said, “and I am here to stand up to say that is not acceptable.”

And then she circled back to his non-apology apology, to close the argument and win over the room, and even, I suspect, many of the Republican men listening. “What I believe is that having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man,” she said, hopefully forever irradiating the ‘family man’ defence. “Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man, and when a decent man messes up as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize.”

Ocasio Cortez took an offensive interaction with an unrepentant colleague and used it to pivot beyond the specifics, and beyond herself, and as a result made a deeply resonant and effective call for basic human empathy and civility that every person within the sound of her voice heard clearly.

Hopefully, even Mr. Yoho.


James Bullbrook
James Bullbrook

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