Elite Rhetoric, Media Coverage,
and Rallying 'Round the Flag
IN THE 1930s, Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) was one of the most consistent and powerful foreign policy isolationists in the Senate. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor that prompted America to enter the Second World War, Vandenberg steadfastly opposed President Franklin Roosevelt's attempts to increase American involvement in the conflict and actively worked to constrain Roosevelt's foreign policy through legislation, including the Neutrality Acts. In contrast Vandenberg increasingly came to advocate “bipartisanship” in the conduct of foreign policy during and after the war, by which he meant “mutual effort, under our indispensable two-Party system, to unite our official voice at the water's edge so that America speaks with maximum authority against those who would divide and conquer us and the free world” (Vandenberg 1952).
For Vandenberg, this united voice did not preclude free debate and the frank exchange of views in the derivation of the policy. Rather, he argued that, at its core, this unity “simply seeks national security ahead of partisan advantage” (Vandenberg 1952). Speaking nearly 50 years after Vandenberg, Representative Lee Hamilton (D- IN) echoed Vandenberg's famous sentiment, arguing that “foreign policy always has more force and punch when the nation speaks with one voice.… A foreign policy of unity is essential if the United States is to promote its values and interests effectively and help to build a safer, freer, and more prosperous world” (Hamilton 2001).
In this chapter, we examine the degree to which American politicians have in fact spoken with one voice on foreign policy issues, and whether such unity truly matters for public opinion. To do so, we analyze network news coverage of congressional evaluations of the president and his administration in periods surrounding the initiation of all major U.S. uses of military force between 1979 and 2003. We propose to demonstrate that even after accounting for a wide range of indicators of empirical reality, communication still plays a crucial, independent role in influencing public support for the president during foreign crises. We further show that, rather than simply parroting the statements of Washington elites, public opinion in these crises varies systematically with the credibility of