Pitching the Presidency: How Presidents Depict the Office

By Paul Haskell Zernicke | Go to book overview
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1
The "President" and Rhetoric

On November 17, 1967 a besieged but determined Lyndon Johnson clipped a microphone to his lapel, approached the television cameras, and delivered the most legendary press conference of his presidency. One month earlier an estimated 50,000 protesters had descended upon Washington, D.C. to participate in the largest anti-war demonstration in American history. Barely 38% of Americans still supported Johnson's presidency. Only 44% still supported the war. 1 Democratic Senator William Fulbright, once the most ardent supporter of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, now publicly chided Johnson for his policy in Southeast Asia. An October editorial in Life magazine denounced the war as unwinnable and unnecessary. And the press was pushing the President harder than ever to respond to the growing anti-war movement.

Just when Johnson seemed to be out of ammunition, he reached to the bottom of his rhetorical arsenal and pulled out the silver bullet--a lesson on the responsibilities and burdens of the presidency. Deflecting criticism as an occupational hazard, he suggested that the President must never wander from the right course of action. For almost forty minutes he strode around the room, depicting life in the Oval Office as a burden and declaring that the American people have never turned their backs on a president. Johnson's aides applauded his performance, and the news media declared the emergence of a "new presidential style." 2

The presidency itself is the most powerful symbol in American political life. Unlike other symbols of authority, such as the Pope or a monarch, the President has no ceremonial uniform that dramatically displays the prestige of the office. The communication of the symbolic presidency is especially dependent upon language. When presidents describe the office, Americans

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