Reagan and Public Discourse in America

Reagan and Public Discourse in America

Reagan and Public Discourse in America

Reagan and Public Discourse in America

Synopsis

Reagan and Public Discourse in America assesses the rhetorical legacy of the Reagan Presidency. The essays in this collection focus on a variety of domestic and foreign policy controversies and identify a broad range of persuasive strategies and devices to reveal how Ronald Reagan both appropriated and transformed American public discourse in the 1980s. Reagan's obvious skill at speech-making earned him the title "Great Communicator", but the contributors to this book seek his rhetorical significance in deeper waters. They analyze Reagan's impact not only on the policy issues of the 1980s but also on the process of public political discourse itself. The contributors uncover ways in which Ronald Reagan helped to change how we talk about public issues, and, just as important, what kinds of issues we talk about. They find Reagan a constricting and distorting influence; his rhetoric tended to remove some issues from public debate and to limit the discussion of others chiefly to rituals, gestures, andevasions. From nuclear strategy to social welfare programs, from budget policy to military intervention, Reagan's rhetoric impoverished and perverted political discourse in the public sphere. Taken together, the essays in this collection challenge the traditional emphasis in rhetorical criticism on individual speech texts in unique historical situations. The contributors find the "text" of their analyses not only in Reagan's public comments on a particular issue, but in the articulation of this issue-specific rhetoric with the historically evolving process of public discourse as a whole. Here, they argue, is where Reagan's greatest significance as a communicator is to be found.

Excerpt

W. Barnett Pearce Michael Weiler

Although he no longer occupies the White House, Ronald Reagan's presidency continues. Scholars and politicians alike inscribe its history, and this social process of remembering continually adds to its form and substance.

In principle, no act or statement is ever completed nor its meaning fully determined. All acts and utterances are "poetic" in that they give or lend form to states of affairs that have as yet uncertain identities and are themselves formed by subsequent events and statements. An event so extended and complex as a presidency is particularly susceptible to multiple interpretations. These interpretations are best understood as a part of that presidency (for example, giving it form by summarizing, abstracting, and refocusing) rather than as stories about it, which describe without affecting it.

For better or worse, the way Reagan's presidency is inscribed is as much a part of its political history as the events and policy decisions that occurred during it. Definitions of the Reagan "legacy" will be contested for years as interpretations of its meaning are formed, sifted, and reevaluated. As with all historical explanation, subsequent events will have much to do with how the Reagan years are appraised and to what uses those appraisals are put.

Critical interpretations began well before the last official "photo opportunity," when the president and first lady boarded the plane that would return them to private life. Long before George and . . .

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