Speaking to the People: The Rhetorical Presidency in Historical Perspective

Speaking to the People: The Rhetorical Presidency in Historical Perspective

Speaking to the People: The Rhetorical Presidency in Historical Perspective

Speaking to the People: The Rhetorical Presidency in Historical Perspective

Synopsis

Evaluates the changing role of popular leadership and presidential rhetoric in American politics

Excerpt

Presidential leadership of public opinion, although nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, is one of the defining roles of the contemporary presidency. We take it for granted today that the president should speak to the people and for the people. The president is the people's representative no less than is Congress; indeed, in the eyes of many observers the president is a more authentic representative of the whole people than Congress, which is thought to be beholden to special interests and plagued by parochialism. The president, we are told, is "the Voice of the People," "the American people's one authentic trumpet," "the spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country."

Many nineteenth-century Americans would have found such notions decidedly odd. Presidents were to be seen and not heard. The office was to be neither sought nor declined. In many nineteenth-century elections, presidential candidates barely uttered a word in their own behalf for fear they would be accused of unseemly ambition and demagoguery. Horace Greeley, who in 1872 dared to defy the "unwritten law of our country that a candidate for President may not make speeches," was mercilessly assailed by opponents as the "great American office beggar" and a "demagogue." Once in office, nineteenth-century presidents rarely if ever went public to mobilize public opinion in the manner we have come to expect of presidents. The gulf between past and present, tradition and modernity, could hardly seem more immense.

Among the most nuanced and influential accounts accenting the difference between contemporary and earlier patterns of popular leadership and presidential rhetoric is Jeffrey Tulis seminal study The Rhetorical Presidency . . .

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