Opening the President's Mailbag: The Nixon Administration's Rhetorical Use of Public Opinion Mail

Article excerpt

The connection between presidential policy rhetoric and public preferences is critical to democratic government, especially if policy rhetoric potentially slips into noncongruence or misrepresentation (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000). Scholars have adeptly documented the use and evaluation of public opinion inside the White House in observance of the perceived (and often "crafted") connection between public opinion and presidential action (Jacobs and Shapiro 1995a; Geer 1996; Eisinger and Brown 1998; Heith 2003; Eisinger 2003). Several other scholars have adroitly described the tangible and responsive connections between public opinion and presidential action, especially on highly salient issues (Cohen 1999; Canes-Wrone, Herron, and Shotts 2001; Canes-Wrone and Shotts 2004; Canes-Wrone 2006).

In addition, the instrumental value of public opinion (especially public opinion polling) in advancing the political goals of presidents has been explored with significant depth. Specifically, public opinion has been identified as being useful for constructing policy-based rhetoric (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000), identifying political supporters and their issues (Heith 2000), as an introspective look at relative executive popularity (Towle 2004), and in navigating the "permanent campaign" from the White House (Ornstein and Mann 2000; Heith 2003). Scholars have also investigated activities of presidents when shaping and talking about public opinion (Herbst 1998; Cook, Barbaras, and Page 2002). These innovative works have significantly advanced our insights into presidential communication routines, especially those related to public opinion, yet more inquiry remains to be done.

Specifically, the rhetorical construction of public opinion by presidents has important implications for public policy (Hart and Johnson 1999; Stuckey 2004). Constructions of public opinion by public officials can be taken as the "truth" of public opinion, and this is especially true for the president who purports to speak for "the American people." Such predictions of public opinion shape a collective identity, whose creation "can be used to legitimatize the collectivity in terms of the speaker's own vision" (Fried and Cole 2001, 223). Further, the president may discuss issues or publics in ways that appear to be congruent with public preferences but are in reality reflective of the preferences of the White House (see Morris and Stuckey 1997; Jacobs and Shapiro 2000; Beasley 2004). This constructed political reality can quickly become evidence of mass public support for an issue because the public believes public opinion to be a settled matter and consequently desires to not express an opinion outside of the original boundary (Edelman 1977; Noelle-Neumann 1993; Herbst 1995).

Scholarship on the communicative value of public opinion has, however, overlooked one compelling element to modern presidential communications: trends in public opinion mail and its instrumental value to the White House. Theoretically, public opinion mail has real value for the White House, especially for a president who is often isolated from members of the public (Rottinghaus 2006). In particular, public opinion mail presents real, unfiltered, and textual opinions to elected officials and for that reason has important connections to representation and democratic governance (Powlick 1995). In this context, public opinion via the mail has also been shown to be significant in motivating political action (Small 1987; Rottinghaus 2007). Scholars of public opinion (and those interested in the effect of opinion on policy making) have been interested in the effect of "activated" opinion (see Key 1964, 275-76; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993), and this empirical work can extend those impressions.

Very few individual studies have examined the internal White House use of public opinion mail. The scholars who have documented the use of opinion mail in the White House have been limited to temporal, historical evaluations (Sussmann 1959), to individual administrations (Howe 1934; Smith 1949; Sussmann 1956, 1963), or to an annotated chronological list of mail sent to the president (Holzer 1998; Giangreco and Moore 1999; Levine and Levine 2002). …