Why Do They Talk That Way? A Research Agenda for the Presidency

Article excerpt

I begin with two quotations and two facts. The quotations are elliptical and the facts curious. Their meanings are curiouser still. That seems to be the state of the art for the American presidency at the dawn of the millennium.

Theodore Roosevelt offered the first rumination when urging that one "treat the political audience as one coming, not to see an etching, but a poster" (quoted in Hughes 1972, 94). How strangely these words fall on modern ears. Imbedded in Roosevelt's claim is the image of a congealed, physical audience, not one consisting of imagined demographic subsectors and media markets. Roosevelt also envisioned politician and audience coming together in real time, real space, not electronically as they do today. Mr. Roosevelt also assumed a politician able to dominate an electorate's perceptions, not one who must fight for every shard of attention granted by the fickle mass media. Able though he was, Theodore Roosevelt could not imagine a postindustrial, poststructural era in which all things--power, space, time, wealth, emotion, ideas--would take on virtual qualities. The turn of the new century finds no Rooseveltian posters, only Clintonian etchings.

Not surprisingly, Michael Oakshott (1996, 132-33) captures our times better: "It is our predicament to be able to enjoy a complex manner of government only at the cost of an equivocal political vocabulary." Here, surely, is the essence of the twenty-first century: complexity cum equivocation. Contemporary American presidents inhabit a world in which German chancellors and Japanese prime ministers have become their closest allies, a world in which Russians are dismantling nuclear weapons and terrorists are flying into skyscrapers, a world in which China is becoming a U.S. tourist destination and in which blacks are in charge in Pretoria. Only today's Middle East might seem somewhat familiar to Mr. Roosevelt, although he would quickly learn that diplomacy and not a bully pulpit is required there and that, even then, success is elusive.

To say that the times have changed is to say very little. But these contrasting quotations say something more: that the language of American politics has changed in important ways and with it have come changes in governance itself. As Tulis (1987) has argued, the American presidency has become a full-time propaganda machine during the past century, a machine that does not just put a happy face on unhappy politics but that imagines a different kind of politics entirely. In a rhetorical world, a man of intellectual substance (Jimmy Carter) can be tossed aside for a man of buoyancy and vision (Ronald Reagan), a world in which a man of enormous governmental experience (George H. W. Bush) can be replaced by a youngster with his heart on his sleeve (Bill Clinton). In a rhetorical world, that same buoyant visionary can trade arms for hostages and be excused with an aw-shucks apology. In that same world, boys can still be boys in the White House if they can sing a happy tune while keeping the nation's economy afloat. When Theodore Roosevelt served as the nation's twenty-sixth president, Hollywood and the District of Columbia were separated by three thousand miles. Today they are neighboring suburbs.

But this is not to say that being president has become easy. Figure 1 reports a slender but important fact: acceptance addresses at the Republican and Democratic conventions have gotten steadily longer during the past fifty years. Why? Do modern presidential candidates now have more substance to share with their listeners, or has the political world gotten larger, requiring that greater attention be devoted to the details of governance? Both explanations seem unlikely. What has changed are the demands of governance. Political parties have become more fractious, so a candidate must now worry about pleasing all while alienating none. There are also the demands of simultaneity. …