All human beings draw upon their understanding of the past in order to make decisions about the future, and political leaders are no different. Not only do political leaders use their conceptions of history to guide their policy making, but they also employ the past in their messages in order to convince citizens to support particular policies and/or to create a value climate in which citizens are likely to do so (Gronbeck 1998, 54-59; Neustadt and May 1986). Evoking public memory, then, is an inherently rhetorical activity, for speakers must choose which stories from the past they desire to tell, how they wish to recount particular people and events, and what words from history they want to share. Sometimes, what politicians offer us in these rhetorical constructions are revisionist histories and messages.
According to William K. Muir, Jr., "More than any other modern president, Ronald Reagan sought to exploit the moral possibilities of the rhetorical presidency. He used his 'bully pulpit' to try to convince the public that his values and ideas about personal responsibility and the good society were right. In other words, he sought to change the mores of Americans" (emphasis in original; Muir 2003, 194). We believe the way in which he did so was by evoking collective memory, particularly in regard to civil rights. Indeed, the president was quite intent on changing national values and mores in this arena. In Sleepwalking through History: America in the Reagan Years, Haynes Johnson concluded that Reagan was one of the few presidents "who truly altered the condition of the country" through his policies and "affected the way people thought about it" (Johnson 1991, 455). We argue that the president attempted to change Americans' perspectives on civil rights by invoking the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., in strategic ways. More specifically, the president employed King's words to argue that equality of opportunity in the United States had already been accomplished, and furthermore, that individuals--rather than the government--now had to take responsibility for any additional progress that was needed. President Reagan maintained that the dismantling of federal civil rights laws and social programs was actually consistent with King's words, and he narrowed the purview of civil rights to exclude government intervention in the economy, education, and other arenas. Through his rhetoric, Reagan prepared the public mind and heart for new public visions and new public policies. Reagan's interpretations and reinvigorated rhetoric signified an evolving set of values and precepts that would be the centerpiece of civil rights rhetoric for decades to come.
Attention to the president's appropriation of King gives us an opportunity to reflect on rhetorical strategies used to develop and extend history and collective memory. In particular, our analysis of Reagan's rhetoric on civil rights not only sheds light on his presidential persuasion, but also on the kinds of civil rights policies that he ultimately adopted. Past research has examined the civil rights rhetoric of other presidents (e.g., Carcasson and Rice 1999; Goldzwig 2003; Goldzwig and Dionisopoulos 1989, 1994, 1995, 55-89; Medhurst 1994; Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles 2000; Pauley 1999, 2001; Windt 1990, 78-84; Zarefsky 1980, 1983, 1986), but has not studied Ronald Reagan's words on this subject. Indeed, the only exception is Vanessa Beasley's You, the People: American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric, which briefly analyzes Reagan's discourse about race as part of her larger project examining how presidents talk about immigration, race, and gender in their inaugural addresses and State of the Union speeches. According to Beasley, Reagan's rhetoric differed from that of his predecessors because he employed inclusive words that denied distinctions among people. She concluded, "Lamentably, however, in this view there was also no one who needed or warranted assistance, a concept that clearly distinguishes Reagan's rhetoric from his predecessors'" (Beasley 2004, 117). Our effort extends work done on presidential civil rights rhetoric and also attempts to explain how Reagan ascribed a new meaning to equal rights in his discourse through his use of Martin Luther King, Jr.
This study may be particularly appropriate now that over four decades have passed since King's "I Have a Dream" speech and also in view of Ronald Reagan's recent death. While most news coverage of Reagan's passing provided nostalgic tributes to his sense of humor and communication skills and praised him for winning the Cold War, his impact on African Americans went largely unnoted. During his time in office, Reagan mocked "welfare queens" in his public discourse, cut the budget for Housing and Urban Development by more than one third in 1981 alone, fired members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights with whom he disagreed, vetoed congressional sanctions against South Africa (Congress overrode the veto), and slashed other social programs in areas such as energy assistance and training and employment that benefited many African Americans, as well as other low-income citizens (Boyd 2004, 1-2; Davidson 2004, 2-4; Howlett 2004, 1). As Howlett observed, "By 1989, the black poverty rate was triple that for whites. A decade earlier, it had been double that of whites" (2004, 1). Reagan's appropriation of King to help justify his policies is a part of his legacy that calls for scholarly analysis. The Reagan years were a watershed, for the president's rhetoric established a legacy that continues to influence civil rights policies, as well as the ways in which many Americans perceive them. In the pages that follow, we first discuss the rhetorical nature of history and collective memory, and the relationship between them, focusing in particular on Martin Luther King, Jr. We then turn our attention to Reagan's appropriation of King in the president's public messages on civil rights and, finally, briefly examine Reagan's rhetorical legacy in setting a new civil rights agenda.
History and Collective Memory as Rhetorical Constructions: The Case of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Our understanding of the past is produced symbolically, for as Gronbeck put it, "In history, the past is constructed into narratives and arguments about the significance of those narratives" (1998, 53). While we often like to think of history as universal and enduring, we also know that professional historians may account for the same events in very different ways. Turner (1998, 10-11) observed that doing history is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, but with no box top picture for guidance and with no guarantee that one is working with a complete set of pieces. Furthermore, the pieces "are not discrete, unchanging units. They are rather more like amoebas, changing shape and significance depending on the context in which they are placed." Historians themselves are guided by their times and by their own values and perceptions which, in turn, can shape their findings. As a result, Dee Brown provided a very different perspective on the American West in 1970's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee than previous historians had. Moreover, numerous revisionist histories have reinterpreted both foreign and domestic policies and events on such varied topics as the Civil War and the civil rights movement, as well as the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Vietnam War. Professional historians draw from acknowledged narratives of the past to forge new interpretations of the past for present audiences.
History, however, is not the only kind of rhetoric that deals with the past. The rhetoric of collective memory does so, as well. According to Hasian and Frank, "Histories are those punctuations of time that have been accepted by the majority of intellectual communities as an authentic record of past events." On the other hand, "Collective memories ... are the public acceptances or ratifications of these histories on the part of broader audiences" (Hasian and Frank 1999, 98). Collective memory includes a selective appropriation of the past by the multiple publics inspired by historical imagination. Collective memory, then, plays a particularly important role in the civic life of a community. This is especially salient when political actors can evoke memories of the past for strategic purposes (Browne 1999, 169-87).
And memory is often infused with myth, as with the perpetual presidential invocation of the American dream, which is premised upon constitutional principles and ideals. Walter Fisher (1973, 160-67) has argued that the American dream is composed of two mythic strands--one moralistic and one materialistic. The moralistic strand of the dream touts liberty, freedom, equality, and equal opportunity. But the American dream also embodies a second strand, that of materialism. The material side of the dream promises wealth, prosperity, a "right" to acquisition of property, goods, and services, our "freedom" of choice as consumers. Amassing material wealth, however, may not necessarily lead to the enjoyment of equality for all. Not only are the two strands of the dream sometimes in conflict with one another, but also specific means for attaining the dream are, at times, at loggerheads. For example, Americans subscribe to equality for all, but are concerned about the means employed to achieve it, which means affirmative action is a litmus test for liberals as well as conservatives. Both camps endorse equality, but they differ over the methods one should employ to achieve this end. Thus, the American dream is conflicted by arguments over ends and means. The dream is also constrained by the largesse of its promise, which includes individual and communal happiness. Appealing to individual virtues may not be enough to effect needed systemic or structural change necessary to the welfare of the entire society. So in sum, the American dream, at its core, is premised upon the horns of a dilemma. Each invocation of the dream risks contradictions in meaning, especially in the conflicts over ends and means and in the tensions arising from individual and communal goals. Appeals striking these mythic chords of meaning, then, inevitably involve risk.
The means by which politicians can evoke the past for present purposes are also varied. However, rhetorical scholars have identified some key genres of public address that can usefully assist this process. First, deliberative or policy rhetoric may draw upon collective memory to make arguments about the future. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, for instance, recalled the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation to advocate for civil rights (Gronbeck 1998, 55). (1) Similarly, when the Reagan administration continued to involve the U.S. government more deeply in Central America during the 1980s, opponents began to sport buttons that read, "El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam." Whether asking for a recommitment to earlier values and times or arguing by analogy, political actors frequently draw upon collective memories to legitimize their arguments about what the shape of future policy should be. The past "is appropriated, made into something useful for today, into a tool to solve some problem or block some proposal" (Gronbeck 1998, 56).
A second way in which collective memory is evoked is through epideictic or ceremonial rhetoric. When political speakers invoke the names of national heroes and events, they not only commemorate them, but also reshape our memories of them. Jasinski, for example, demonstrated how Frederick Douglass's 1852 Fourth of July oration employed ceremonial speaking for "subversive" ends by reconceptualizing the American Revolution as an ongoing process and the Constitution as institutionalizing principles of equality, rather than legitimizing slavery (Jasinski 1997, 71-89). When speakers evoke the past in ceremonial rhetoric, they also reshape it in ways that "make it more useful in the present" (Gronbeck 1998, 56). (2)
The evocation of the American dream in collective memory is at once an epideictic and a deliberative fusion. The appeal to the dream celebrates present values while simultaneously evoking and shaping public memory. This is its epideictic mission. But because a president may package his dream discourse with policy proposals and/or announcements regarding the implementation of policy, the president often seeks a rationale for ongoing government actions (both present and future). In the context of our analysis of Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King, the president's discourse attempted to bolster both actions taken and actions contemplated through the invocation of King and his dream. King's version of the American dream, however, called the country to accountability by asking America to fulfill its promise to all citizens, rather than returning to some a check marked "insufficient funds" (see King 1963b, 345). While all presidents may tend to skew collective memory and the myth of the American dream for political purposes, we argue that the method Reagan used in literally "re-presenting" King and his dream, through various ways of contextualizing and decontexrualizing, was particularly egregious. Invoking the dream was at once a product of myth, ritual, and political control (see Bennett 1980).
Whether dealing with history or collective memory, we need to keep in mind their inherently rhetorical character. While narrative accounts of the past can do an excellent job of reconstructing important periods, events, and circumstances that we label "history," it is also the case that such accounts are likely to have a particular point of view that can influence audience reception. Megill and McCloskey (1987, 221) pointed out that "tropes, arguments, and other devices of language [are] used to write history and to persuade audiences." In turn, historians can shape the contours of both history and collective memory. As Carole Blair (1992, 417) made clear, "Historical discourse is not magically exempt from the inherent partisanship of language use. Nor is its practice devoid of choice. Historians make inventional/presentational choices that determine the kinds of histories they compose." As a result, all historical accounts have a rhetorical vector.
Likewise, political speakers rhetorically construct the past when they summon collective memory in deliberative and/or ceremonial messages. To a degree, of course, the act of evoking collective memory and thereby drawing "lessons from history" is grounded in "processes of oversimplification and analogical extension" (Dionisopoulos and Goldzwig 1992, 75). Yet, certain choices can skew much of the account. Such descriptions may not simply be wrong, but rather incomplete until or unless other accounts help compensate for their omissions. For example, in the early days after the tragic events of September 11, comparisons were made to Pearl Harbor. The analogy was flawed in many ways, but certainly evocative of the complex feelings many Americans had at the time. In other cases, political actors, in their efforts to employ memory for their present purposes, may shape it strategically to drive home specific lessons (Dionisopoulos and Goldzwig 1992). This may be particularly true of presidents, whose bully pulpits lend themselves easily to national education efforts, prompting one scholar to describe the president as the nation's "interpreter-in-chief" (Stuckey 1991, 1; also see Kernell 1997; Lowi 1985; Tulis 1987). Depending upon the president, his party, the particular ideology of his administration, and the special needs and requirements of his era, presidential messages will exhibit a particular worldview and set of purposes that may obstruct or even erase the message of those whose memory they invoke. Just as professional historians may vie for acceptance of their narratives by their intellectual community, presidents also vie for public acceptance of the collective memories they employ. At the same time, however, histories …