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Eloquence and the iconic presidency


The scholarly conversation prompted by Jeffrey Tulis’ The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton University Press, 1987) continues to animate research on the modern presidency, a fact confirmed by the wide range of essays published in a special issue on the topic last year in Critical Review (vol. 19:2-3, 2007).  The journal’s editor, Jeffrey Friedman, places Tulis’ claim in the historical context of the emergence of a late 19th century populist politics stymied by a corporatist lock down on critical-rational deliberation.  In a climate where financial interests had promulgated ideological acceptance of their worldview among political elites, only outside agitation could accomplish social reform, a fact well understood by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

The changes in American political culture resulting from the Roosevelt/Wilson decision to shift presidential address from mainly ceremonial and addressed to other elites into a practice that converted presidents into “quasi-religious figures, who (if they are successful) spark the zeal of millions with their ‘visions for the future’ and their ‘dreams of a better country’” (Friedman, pg. 198) are so profound as to have essentially produced a doubled constitutional order.  Tulis illustrates the transformational consequences of this shift by use of many examples; one is George Washington, who often gave public addresses but never in publicly consequential ways (his public remarks were dominated by the expression of welcome or thanks; his second inaugural address, which did address the electorate, was just a couple paragraphs long).  Another is Andrew Johnson, who was actually impeached (in part) for his use of presidential speech for public purposes; the tenth article of impeachment accuses Johnson of making and delivering “with a loud voice certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues… [which,] highly censurable in any, are peculiarly indecent and unbecoming in the Chief Magistrate of the United States, by means whereof…  Andrew Johnson has brought the high office of the President of the United States into contempt, ridicule, and disgrace, to the great scandal of all good citizens.”  These behaviors, first from a president and second from a Congress, would be incomprehensible today.

The old constitutional order that was displaced by these presidential rhetorical practices (and the cult of personality they set in motion) was explicitly designed with very different purposes in mind, centered as it was on a logic seeking to insulate legislative activity from outside demagoguery so that rational debate could settle disagreement.  One of the most significant consequences of what Tulis argued was a new constitutionalism was the resulting shift in governmental authority to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the direction of the White House and its message managers.

The Tulis thesis has been interrogated, affirmed and attacked on many fronts.  Some argue that he incorrectly sees the Roosevelt/Wilson use of presidential eloquence as a fundamental break when the antecedents for “going over the heads of the Congress” may reach further back in time and more closely align with the emergence of national mass communication networks (especially the 18th century formation of a national newspaper and literary culture) that both enabled and gave preeminence to presidential declaration.  And perhaps the most considerable attention has been given to the question of how consequential this change, even stipulating the Tulis account, has been.  Responding to critics like George Edwards, a political scientist who has documented the often very limited shifts in public opinion and legislative outcome accomplished by even strenuous presidential suasory activity (On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit, Yale UP, 2003), others insist that the main effectivity of presidential address is not issue-by-issue swings but rather the more subtle shifts in public thinking achieved when presidents frame issues of identity and character in ways that recast the larger scene of public deliberation (a compelling example of this is Mary Stuckey’s Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity, UP of Kansas, 2004).  The American president, in such a view, becomes an Every(wo)man who implicitly teaches the rest of us to see through his eyes and to respond in some cases empathetically (or harshly) and in other cases to not see something at all.

Still others insist that the principle effectivity of presidential discourse is not so much its ability to sell Americans on certain policies or to affirmatively frame national questions in certain ways, as to frame the discussion in a way that removes certain policies from the range of acceptable discourse (two political scientists have regularly presented this thesis at the American Political Science Association conference); an example would be how Bill Clinton’s discourse on Social Security, although failing to notably advance his own reform agenda for the program, did nonetheless inoculate American public opinion against the privatization agenda of the new Republican congressional majority.

For me the contours of this broader debate over rhetorical effectivity turn on a question raised by George Edwards but, in my view, never satisfactorily answered in his work; namely, if presidential rhetoric matters so little in shaping the contours of public policy, why do American presidents spend so much time and energy working at it?

The contributors to the Critical Review symposium come at these issues, as one would expect, from many directions.  Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Jeffrey Gottfried explore the question of whether Tulis’ central claims work in assessing the reach of an increasingly rhetorical judiciary (they find confirming evidence for Tulis’ prediction that judges would more often publicly defend their actions but disagree with his forecast that the confirmation process would wholly descend into empty demagoguery).   Richard Pious (Barnard), following the old predisposition to juxtapose rhetoric and reality, sees the rise of a rhetorical presidency as creating an inevitable legitimacy problem cyclically enacted as presidential performance inevitably falls shorts of rhetorically hyped campaign expectations.  Nicole Mellow (Williams College) notes how the rise of a more rhetorical legislature has only compounded the political echo chamber. Thomas Pangle (UT-Austin) wonders why Tulis resists endorsing the Theodore Roosevelt middle way when he clearly seems to prefer it to the Wilsonian model now dominant.  For Mel Laracey (UT-San Antonio), the Tulis claim must be bifurcated (at least in historical terms), since he finds far more compelling the evidence that Democrats gravitated to public rhetoric than Republicans or Whigs or Federalists.

One of the most compelling of the contributions, though placed late in the collection, is Diane Rubenstein’s “Allegories of Reading Tulis” (447-460).  Rubenstein, author of a deeply fascinating new book entitled This is Not a President:  Sense, Nonsense, and the American Political Imaginary (NYU, 2008), whose cover image of Hillary Clinton and the cursive rendition of the title allegorically evoke Magritte’s painting Leci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) and Michel Foucault’s later commentary on it, sees Tulis’ work less a statement about rhetoric than an oblique but necessary commentary on republican government and the inevitable double binds it creates for public figures.

Terri Bimes, a Berkeley political scientist, argues for another revision.  In her view, what Tulis sees as the effective imposition of a second (or new) constitutional order is something less than that; what Wilson and Roosevelt set in motion was less an upheaval in constitutional government than its clarification (here she is disagreeing with Tulis’ argument that the constitution wholly constrained presidential rhetorical practice; while she agrees that the original vision of the Framers did seek to protect the presidential selection process from demagoguery and its consequences, she argues that otherwise the relationship between president and public was left unspecified).  Thus the Framers did not foreclose a rhetorical presidency but rather, “by creating a single officer as the head of a representative government, and by allowing for a popular role in that officer’s selection, they created an opportunity for presidents to exert popular leadership…  [and] these opportunities, evidently, were irresistible” (Bimes, “The Practical Origins of the Rhetorical Presidency,” pg. 254).

David Crockett, a political scientist from Trinity University in Texas, reads Tulis in opposition to Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power (Free Press, 1990) alternative (and institution-centered) analysis, finding in Tulis’ “layered text” metaphor evidence that in this case a full appreciation of presidential power requires attention to eloquence and organizational structure and institutional lines of authority and historical constraint.  Susan Herbst, a mass communication scholar now holding a senior administrative appointment in the University System of Georgia, takes an arguably opposed view, arguing that presidential discourse and its preeminence in the American political system is being eclipsed as new media practices (especially 24/7 news and the blogosphere) have produced new and pluralized megaphones harder for any administration to manage even as the American president continues to embody the nation (Herbst, “The Rhetorical Presidency and the Contemporary Media Environment,” pgs. 335-343).

Tulis’ original claim, of course, was a bit different than any of these specific theses, centered as it was on the shift that made soft demagoguery (the kind that operates under the rubric of my friends consensus building talk and that succeeds mainly by flattery while insistently sidestepping critical-rational deliberation) suddenly acceptable after the long standing acquiescence to a constitutional regime that found demagoguery inherently subversive of the task of completing the nation’s business.  Read by the lights of the current McCain versus Obama campaign, where rhetorical effectiveness has become an issue and where Senator Obama’s skill at making a compelling speech is itself read as suspicious and (in a bizarre formulation) his ability to move large crowds read as evidencing his elitism, what Tulis’ original argument calls to mind most is actually how wholly the culture has internalized the idea that presidential candidates on all sides are expected to offer visions and programs and bring people together, and how such articulations so wholly sidestep judgments about a candidates actual capacity to implement their views on arrival.  The wholesale change in how citizens judge candidates for high office is perhaps best evidenced by the odd standards now in use as Sarah Palin is introduced to the American people:  for vast swathes of the American electorate a potential president’s capacity to maneuver through the institutional levels of power (that is, to know who does what in the federal government or the intricacies of this policy proposal versus that) do not matter at all compared to the symbolic triumphs of seeing someone (verbally) stand up to the Congress or take on the old boy’s network or fight for you and your families.  But Palin is only the most recent symptom; as John DiIulio argues, we have been living with a hyper-rhetorical presidency (where message management dominates everything else) at least since Clinton and more likely since Reagan.

In the wide sweep of these arguments, perhaps it best to give the last word to Tulis himself, who provides a closing commentary ending with this observation (“The Rhetorical Presidency in Retrospect,” pgs. 481-500):

[A]t bottom, modern constitutionalism – Federalist constitutionalism – is a form of indirect governance.  In this modern invention, the people are intermittent witnesses to governance, but are not truly part of the political order.  Wilson’s reforms and reinterpretations altered important political practices but could not escape the Constitution’s deeper design of depoliticizing modern life.  For Americans to become truly political beings, they would need a new kind of civic education, one that echoes ancient understandings of citizenship in modern circumstances.  This new kind of education, and the new understanding of leadership that it requires, would have Wilsonian aspects.  But it would be a far more ambitious enterprise than even Wilson, let alone TR, advocated:  an enterprise that goes beyond both the old and the new constitutional orders.

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