Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Opening the President's Mailbag: The Nixon Administration's Rhetorical Use of Public Opinion Mail

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Opening the President's Mailbag: The Nixon Administration's Rhetorical Use of Public Opinion Mail

Article excerpt

The connection between presidential policy rhetoric and public preferences is critical to democratic government, especially if policy rhetoric potentially slips into noncongruence or misrepresentation (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000). Scholars have adeptly documented the use and evaluation of public opinion inside the White House in observance of the perceived (and often "crafted") connection between public opinion and presidential action (Jacobs and Shapiro 1995a; Geer 1996; Eisinger and Brown 1998; Heith 2003; Eisinger 2003). Several other scholars have adroitly described the tangible and responsive connections between public opinion and presidential action, especially on highly salient issues (Cohen 1999; Canes-Wrone, Herron, and Shotts 2001; Canes-Wrone and Shotts 2004; Canes-Wrone 2006).

In addition, the instrumental value of public opinion (especially public opinion polling) in advancing the political goals of presidents has been explored with significant depth. Specifically, public opinion has been identified as being useful for constructing policy-based rhetoric (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000), identifying political supporters and their issues (Heith 2000), as an introspective look at relative executive popularity (Towle 2004), and in navigating the "permanent campaign" from the White House (Ornstein and Mann 2000; Heith 2003). Scholars have also investigated activities of presidents when shaping and talking about public opinion (Herbst 1998; Cook, Barbaras, and Page 2002). These innovative works have significantly advanced our insights into presidential communication routines, especially those related to public opinion, yet more inquiry remains to be done.

Specifically, the rhetorical construction of public opinion by presidents has important implications for public policy (Hart and Johnson 1999; Stuckey 2004). Constructions of public opinion by public officials can be taken as the "truth" of public opinion, and this is especially true for the president who purports to speak for "the American people." Such predictions of public opinion shape a collective identity, whose creation "can be used to legitimatize the collectivity in terms of the speaker's own vision" (Fried and Cole 2001, 223). Further, the president may discuss issues or publics in ways that appear to be congruent with public preferences but are in reality reflective of the preferences of the White House (see Morris and Stuckey 1997; Jacobs and Shapiro 2000; Beasley 2004). This constructed political reality can quickly become evidence of mass public support for an issue because the public believes public opinion to be a settled matter and consequently desires to not express an opinion outside of the original boundary (Edelman 1977; Noelle-Neumann 1993; Herbst 1995).

Scholarship on the communicative value of public opinion has, however, overlooked one compelling element to modern presidential communications: trends in public opinion mail and its instrumental value to the White House. Theoretically, public opinion mail has real value for the White House, especially for a president who is often isolated from members of the public (Rottinghaus 2006). In particular, public opinion mail presents real, unfiltered, and textual opinions to elected officials and for that reason has important connections to representation and democratic governance (Powlick 1995). In this context, public opinion via the mail has also been shown to be significant in motivating political action (Small 1987; Rottinghaus 2007). Scholars of public opinion (and those interested in the effect of opinion on policy making) have been interested in the effect of "activated" opinion (see Key 1964, 275-76; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993), and this empirical work can extend those impressions.

Very few individual studies have examined the internal White House use of public opinion mail. The scholars who have documented the use of opinion mail in the White House have been limited to temporal, historical evaluations (Sussmann 1959), to individual administrations (Howe 1934; Smith 1949; Sussmann 1956, 1963), or to an annotated chronological list of mail sent to the president (Holzer 1998; Giangreco and Moore 1999; Levine and Levine 2002). Ultimately, we have little empirical evidence documenting the instrumental value or political uses of public opinion mail to a modern White House more concerned with public communication than at any time in history. This is an important addition to our understanding of the role of public opinion in shaping political (especially communicative) behavior.

Indeed, the practice of presidents constructing public opinion is particularly relevant, and potentially dangerous, when considering references to public opinion mail. The trouble may arise because the ability to invoke "public opinion" through single references to opinion may represent a potentially manipulatory effect because no other political actors can contest the meaning of the president's mail (Edelman 1977). If the president can shape and move public opinion with inaccurate definitions of opinion, the manipulatory power of the bully pulpit enlarges, presidential influence in the policymaking process is artificially inflated, and the president may mischaracterize certain segments of the American public (Beasley 2004). This work is therefore at the critical intersection of communication and public opinion and allows us to examine trends in public presidential persuasion more clearly and comprehensively.

In this article, therefore, we expand the empirical discussion of the value of public opinion mail by exploring the uses of public opinion mail to advance the political goals of the Nixon White House, specifically in constructing public opinion. Although these results are not necessarily generalizable beyond the Nixon administration, we weave an important addition to the literature on the instrumental political uses of public opinion, rhetorical construction of public opinion (specifically with public opinion mail), and the potential for manipulation or misrepresentation of public preferences in the White House. This approach allows us to more accurately examine the trends of opinion gauging in the modern presidency (see Eisinger 2003; Heith 2003) and expands our understanding of the specific tactics used by the White House to persuade the public (see Jacobs and Shapiro 2000). The Nixon administration's ability to use public opinion mail is a noteworthy political innovation in modern presidential communication. This article broadly contributes to this literature by examining and evaluating this heretofore undisclosed presidential communications strategy.

In our analysis, we explore this topic by utilizing heretofore unexplored archival material from the Nixon Materials Project at the National Archives demonstrating the Nixon administration's desire to use public opinion mail for political purposes. We also combine this archival analysis with a collected data set of public statements referencing public opinion mail. We find the administration strategically utilized public opinion mail in several ways. The internal White House strategy to use public opinion mail in public speeches originated with the Nixon administration (specifically from the president himself) and centralized the process of identifying and selecting interesting letters for presidential communicative use. In examining public references to opinion mail by the president, we find that President Richard Nixon used public opinion mail as evidence of a strong (and diverse) connection between his policy positions and the public's preferences. In most instances, President Nixon referred to a piece of public opinion mail to demonstrate the harmony of his position with the public interest, especially on salient issues of the time, including the Vietnam War and the wage and price freeze to combat inflation. The president also exercised fidelity in accurately identifying similarities between the trends in the mail and mass opinion--the ultimate effect was to assist the president in persuading the public of the value of public opinion to the White House.

The Nixon Administration and Public Opinion

The Nixon White House broke ground in several ways regarding the evolution of new political tools to gauge and shape public opinion. The Nixon administration began the centralization and expansion of public opinion polling in the White House by adding a rotating roster of pollsters (Jacobs and Shapiro 1995a; Eisinger 2003). As a result, President Nixon's public opinion apparatus was significantly greater than that of his immediate predecessor Lyndon Johnson (21 percent greater), reaching the apex of polling in the White House (Jacobs and Burns 2004). There were also manipulative efforts afoot in the gauging of public opinion to manipulate public opinion by pressuring pollsters. In particular, the administration was covertly pressuring the Gallup and Harris polls to ask survey questions in a manner designed to elicit a public response favorable to the administration (Jacobs and Shapiro 1995b).

The Nixon administration's use of the mail as a political tool was blended with their interest in public opinion polling--indeed, these tools provided additive value to an administration interested in reading the public thought. The Nixon administration, and the president in particular, viewed incoming opinion mail with a keen eye for political strategies in addition to its value for internally conveying special interest and general public preferences. This insight is confirmed by a rare acknowledgment of the normally secretive means of gauging public opinion by the Nixon administration to the New York Times. 1 Public opinion polling was used (and abused) in similar ways by President Nixon and his staff, in particular by selectively releasing "supportive" results and "priming" pollsters to query the public about certain issues with slanted question wording (Jacobs and Shapiro 1995b).

By the Nixon administration, the volume of mail received at the White House was higher than that of any previous administration (Rottinghaus 2006). The White House was receiving over two million letters, cards, and telegrams per year between 1969 and 1971 (Small 1999, 232). After sorting the incoming mail, it was read by twenty-two mail analysts "who are instructed to bring all important, unusual or human interest items to the attention of the supervisor." (2) The president received a random sampling of these incoming letters twice a week. Of these correspondences, the letter writer received a personal reply from the president (generally in longhand). (3) Internally, these letters were to be "pre-screened" for the president in a way "giving him the best overall view of the mail without trying to eliminate either very critical or very laudatory letters." (4) At the president's request, each piece of mail received some form of individual attention. Specifically, letters that offered suggestions or recommendations were often sent to staff members for action. (5)

Similar to public opinion polls, a great deal of attention was paid to mail at the highest levels in the Nixon administration. This public opinion data, including polling, was given a high level of secrecy and was contained within the "inner circle" of presidential advisors (Heith 1998). President Nixon himself was responsible for the initiation of these summaries--he first requested "a weekly analysis of the mail, not so much on a statistical basis as on a narrative summary of the nature of the mail, giving him a general idea of the principal areas covered in letters sent to him." (6) The aggregate "pro" and "con" summaries were only sent to select senior staff, including David Gergen (assistant to the president for communication), John Ehrlichman (senior domestic policy advisor), and H. R. Haldeman (chief of staff). (7)

The president was particularly interested and concerned with his administration's ability to monitor what Americans thought. As a proxy for the president's concerns, Haldeman relayed to Emil Keogh (director of White House communications) that "the President feels that it is very important for all of the people concerned with public relations and writing to read a substantial number of letters that have come in," and

   [h]e is most anxious that these people particularly get a feel of
   what the people of the country want and what they like; that is,
   the specifics in their reactions to the two major appearances of
   the President so far. The individual comments as to appearance,
   tone, content, etc. he feels are very important. They should try to
   get a feel of what moves the average person. This is a matter of
   chemistry and tone and feel. (8)

In particular, the president did not want the White House to become overly concerned with the opinions of the "columnists" in Washington, DC, but rather that the administration should "react to people." (9) The president was concerned with understanding the trends of the public opinion mail but was primarily interested in "pro" mail. (10) The president's request was conveyed in a memorandum from Haldeman in 1969: "He [the president] did ask, however, that in the compilation of samples of mail for him to review, you not include 'Con' mail; i.e., mail that expresses opinions contrary to positions taken by the President on specific issue subjects." Further:

   He is more interested in seeing the "Pro" mail that relates to the
   handling of the Presidency and the tone, etc. For example, he would
   like to see mail reacting to the Press Conference that gives him
   some feel of what the people particularly like in the style, tone
   or content, rather than substantive mail regarding the issues
   covered. (11)

In fact, the president requested that the mailroom staff not "waste time replying to anti-Administration letters of a general nature." (12) Letters relating to specific issues should be referred to the proper agency, but "a general complaint or expression of nonsupport should not receive any response." (13)

The mail was also sorted and organized with political purposes in mind, especially during the 1972 election. Although there was no planned response for "ordinary con mail," various categories of supportive mail were to be utilized for campaign purposes. For instance, types of mail that expressed "ordinary political support with suggestions regarding campaign, platform, etc." and "ordinary general political support with offer of services" received acknowledgment and were forwarded to state committees. Mail in the category of "unusually good letters from ordinary Democrats" and "unusually good letters from young voters" were acknowledged and forwarded to Raymond Price (chief of mails) and Ken Rietz (assistant to the president) for "campaign use." (14)

Using Mail for Political Purposes

The Nixon administration was the first White House to make more significant and centrally controlled use of media communication by using the power of the White House to persuade the public on their political and policy goals. Specifically, they created the White House Communications Office designed to coordinate the efforts of the White House public strategy and to emanate proactively the president's message to the public (Grossman and Kumar 1981; Maltese 1994). The Nixon administration also became the first White House to employ a full-time producer (under the White House Television Office) and politically pressure local news outlets to not carry "biased" network news on their stations (Small 1999). Therefore, linking the public opinion apparatus with the communications apparatus, we should theoretically expect the White House to utilize their internal information regarding public preferences to attempt to form positive public impressions of the White House's attention to and leadership of public preferences.

The administration, at the direction of the president, was also interested in using the mail for purposes beyond gauging opinion. In this capacity, the White House used the bully pulpit to communicate its interpretation of American public opinion (or segments of the public endemic to specific issues) to the media in order to define its understanding of public opinion on a particular situation. In particular, the president himself expressed concern about the use of mail for political purposes and noted, "Where the letter offers an opportunity for a public response we should not miss that situation. I know there are many instances where our letters do receive local publicity. I just want to be sure that we are getting the maximum out of this possibility and that we concentrate even more effort in this direction in the months ahead." (15) Haldeman shortly thereafter noted to the president that "all of us share the view that we have not fully utilized the human interest, anecdotal or PR aspects of the incoming mail and that we need to improve the quality of some of our outgoing items." (16) In fact, the White House instituted a "special projects section" as a result to conduct "analysis of human interest and anecdotal mail for use by speechwriters and inclusion in weekly mail sample." (17)

The president was intimately involved in utilizing interesting mail for purposes of communicating his view of public opinion (and by extension, his political message) to the public, possibly explaining why he only desired positive mail. He specifically requested more such mail in 1971 by asking Haldeman, "What I really want is not to see so much for my own purposes but to find methods whereby it can be used more effectively in getting our message to the country." (18) With this strategy in mind, President Nixon also argued for the need for a campaign offensive before the 1972 election:

   I think the greatest deficiency is in having mail read for the
   purpose of getting out some nuggets which I can use from time to
   time in my informal remarks or even in speeches as I did at West
   Point. Ray's weekly mail sample is a very good step in the right
   direction as far as that goal is concerned. I would like to have
   one individual assigned to that who has high sensitivity and who
   will read mail with the idea in mind that I might use it for
   anecdote purposes. (19)

The president continued: "I cannot emphasize too strongly the need for more anecdote material" because "mail can provide more opportunities for anecdotes than we have realized." (20) As noted, Haldeman produced a response to the president's request, which entailed expanding the Correspondence Office from six to ten people and empowering one person to be responsible for "human interest" mail. (21) In particular, the White House was interested in letters concerning Vietnam, peace, cost of living, tax reform, welfare reform and family assistance, conservation, and education. (22)

At multiple points during the discussion of these mail summaries, it was indicated that the actual pro and con tallies should not be released to the press, unlike the practices of the Johnson administration (Gardner 1995, 256). Raymond Price noted to John Ehrlichman that "although we receive frequent requests for figures on mail relating to particular issues, we are generally reluctant to release these counts because they can be misleading and subject to misinterpretation. For example, counts on certain issues tend to be 'padded' with inspired or form mail and are not necessarily a reflection of public opinion." (23) Also encouraging this secrecy was the fact that much of the "outpouring" of support mail registered by the administration was fabricated by outside interest groups at the behest of the White House (Lardner 1999). Rather, the White House's strategy was to discuss the content of the letters, which could more easily be shaped for the administration's rhetorical purpose.

The public release of these letters was also a tactic used to illustrate the administration's attention to public opinion. Jeb Magruder (assistant to the president) indicated in a memorandum to Haldeman that, in an effort to make more effective press use of individual letters, his operation would "provide them, where appropriate, to the wire services, magazines, or individual newspapers as each specific case dictated. We would also direct individual letters to friendly newspaper writers and columnists." (24) However, the release of these letters would not be total--these pieces of mail were selectively screened letters to the press. In responding to a press request to read through the president's mail for an article, the Press Office indicated that the mail should be "screened" before the journalist could examine them. (25)

Also of particular interest to the Nixon White House at the time were letters from younger people, especially those in support of the war. The March 5, 1971, summary mentions a letter

   from an 18-year-old freshman at Washington University in St. Louis,
   who's not in sympathy with the violence-prone but deeply anguished
   by a set of attitudes that are pretty prevalent among many of his
   age-group. It's an occasionally irritating letter, but it does
   point up a group of stereotypes we have to contend with, and also a
   set of ambivalences--a deep love of country, and a deep (if
   juvenile) disillusion, yet withal a desperate search for hope and
   reassurance. (26)

A similar letter from a freshman at Northern Illinois University seeks reassurance from the commander in chief concerning the war and implores the president to "give me something to hold on to." (27) On July 9, 1971, was a letter from "the young widow of a man killed in Vietnam on Christmas Day" who urges that the administration "stay there until something has been accomplished.... There is a purpose and that purpose is freedom, theirs as well as ours." (28)

Examining Nixon's Rhetoric on Mail

In order to systematically examine references to public opinion mail during Nixon's tenure in office, I searched the Public Papers of the President for references to public opinion mail (and variations on that concept). (29) Because this analysis is interested exclusively in references to letters from the public, I excluded mentions of letters to or from members of Congress, journalists, or foreign leaders and letters that were procedural or on personnel matters (resignations or hirings). Each reference, even if lengthy or referred to in multiple speeches (usually in a campaign swing), was only cited as a single entry. (30) Overall, this search strategy seemed to capture most or all of the references to public opinion mail and ultimately yielded 41 references to public opinion mail in the president's public speeches. (31)

Who sent the letters? Most of the letters the president discussed were letters from specific individuals rather than the general public. (32) Overall, 78 percent (n = 32) of the letters were from identified individuals, including schoolteachers, soldiers and wives of soldiers, a "wage earner," several mothers and fathers, and a "prisoner." Whether this was intentional or not, the range of individual letters referenced seemed to represent a diverse audience of individuals who agreed with the president. Those letters that were not identified by a specific category of person totaled 22 percent (n = 9)--these were general "public" letters referenced by the president in an amorphous way to describe what "the public" felt. Given the individual nature of the mail, and the administration's strategy to select certain constituent groups to highlight public support, this use of mail is in line with the administration's approach.

Also, in keeping with the White House's concern about the public exposure of the mail, in a vast majority of instances, if the president referred to a particular letter, it was not released to the public (88 percent [n = 36] of the cases). This is not surprising because scholars of the public opinion apparatus in the White House also note the typical secrecy of public opinion polls, viewing it as proprietary information not appropriate for public consumption (see Jacobs and Shapiro 1995a; Eisinger 2003). (33) This finding is also consistent with Cook, Barbaras, and Page (2002), who find that most references to public opinion were not directly identified, but rather that these mentions were more vaguely referenced. Importantly, in each of these cases, unlike ubiquitous and often contested public opinion polling data, no other political actor could challenge the authority or interpretation of the president's public opinion mail.

To what issues were these references referring? Not surprisingly, the two most frequently referenced issues were the two most important issues confronting the nation and the Nixon administration. Letters on both inflation (specifically the wage and price freeze) and on the Vietnam War individually encompassed 20 percent (both n = 8) of the public references. (34) In particular, between November 1972 and February 1973, the president referred to letters on Vietnam on three occasions, revealing additional support for the administration's policy after his successful reelection and during peace negotiations (Addington 2000). The first was from the wife of a soldier who died in Vietnam supporting the administration's policy, the second was from a prisoner who forgave Nixon for the atrocities of Vietnam because peace was near, and the third was from a mother who lost her son in the war urging the president to "stay the course" so that he would not "die for nothing."

Several other issues of salience to the public were prime for inclusion in the president's remarks. In particular, on the issue of illegal drugs, the White House was interested in connecting public concerns to the administration's proposals. After the president's statement in a press conference (June 1, 1971), David Gergen indicated, "The White House has received a stream of anguished, poignant letters from people who have suffered from drugs." He continued, "One or two of the letters might be useful for the President's televised statement this week. The others, I think, could be incorporated into future remarks and mail sample which we give to the President." Letters on drugs and drug policy offered an opportunity for the administration to "humanize" the issue even if it assumed that the public would not endorse this view as indicative of mass opinion. Gergen noted, "After reading these letters, I'm convinced the President has struck a very sensitive nerve on this issue, and this is a splendid opportunity for him to draw upon and display his own sense of humanity in trying to solve it." (35)

As a result, references to the administration's drug policies or the detriment drugs have on society were mentioned several times by the administration (10 percent, n = 4). These references were cloistered together in September and October 1972. In all of these references, concurrent with Gergen's suggestion, the letters were from anguished drug users (or families of drug users) describing the importance of the problem and thanking the president for his leadership. The president referenced one such letter in a radio address on crime and drug abuse:

   A short time before Christmas last year, I received a heart-rending
   letter from a teenage boy in the Midwest. He told me in his letter
   how his brother, a college student of exceptional promise, after
   slipping deeper and deeper into drug experimentation, had gone off
   into the woods with a gun one day, completely without warning, and
   taken his own life. Listen to the boy's letter: "If we can stop
   just one boy from doing what my brother did, his whole life will
   have been worthwhile.... You can beat that drug, Mr. Nixon; you
   can destroy it before it destroys any more lives." (36)

The president concluded, "This is my answer to this letter: I cannot beat this problem by myself, but if all of us work together, we can and we will beat it." Such presidential rhetorical efforts to set the agenda on the "drug problem" were persistently successful (see Johnson, Wanta, and Boudreau 2004).

Also frequently cited were personal letters about or concerning the president (in particular concerns about his health) at 15 percent (n = 6) of the data. The White House, as described above, was using these letters to make the president more human and solidify a tighter bond between the public and the illusive occupant of the White House. For instance, these letters included "off-beat items," in particular the president's inclusion of a letter in a speech concerning teddy bears in the president's background. Interestingly, this letter was identified earlier by the mail chief as an example of a letter that would be good for inclusion in the president's speech file. (37) The president referred to this letter in remarks at the "Briefing for Businessmen" by noting that he looked forward to the day when his "teddy bear" would become a "bull" (referring to the stock market). (38) This tactic illustrates the shift during the Nixon administration from policy-based to image-based politics (Jacobs and Burns 2004).

Did the public agree with the president? A majority of the letters mentioned by the president were used to verify that the public agreed with the president on the issue or policy in question. In 68 percent of the cases coded (n = 28), the letter was used to verify or buttress the president's point of view. This is in harmony with previous findings in the literature that show that politicians' references to public opinion are used to demonstrate congruency (see Cook, Barbaras, and Page 2002; Paden and Page 2003). For instance, the president referenced his wage-freeze plan several times when identifying public support. In a nationally televised address to the nation, Nixon noted that "thousands of letters have come to this desk since I made the announcement of the wage-price freeze 7 weeks ago. Listen to what people all across America, from all walks of life, have written to me, the President, about this program." He goes on to read several letters, including one from a widow "raising two sons on a teacher's salary" who will lose $300 because of the freeze but argues "that we must all support your efforts to bring the economy back into balance." (39)

In contrast, in only 7 percent of the cases (a total of only three cases) was the letter referenced used to demonstrate a contrary point or illustrate a counterargument (which the president would argue against) in a speech. For example, in October 1969, President Nixon indicated that he was "under no circumstances" swayed by public demonstrations, prompting a letter from a Georgetown University student indicating that the president should be influenced by these protests. President Nixon replied to the man, not in a speech but in an "open" letter released to the public, in exhausting detail, outlining several points, among them that public demonstrations were not opinions "shared by the majority of the people." (40) Nixon also indicated that these demonstrations, while demonstrating the importance of the war to a great many people, did not teach us anything about opinion or foster new ideas. We see few such uses of mail because, as expected, the White House was interested primarily in "pro" mail to more effectively communicate their political position.

Moreover, in 24 percent of the cases (n = 10), public opinion mail was referenced in a general way to demonstrate or illustrate that the administration (and the president in particular) was broadly concerned about public opinion. That is, in these cases, the "public" or "public opinion" or "my mail" was invoked to illustrate a particular point rather than a reference to mail from a specific person. Likewise, in none of the cases did the president refer to the specific percentage or numerical distribution of mail opinion, favoring vague phrases such as "my mail indicates" or "letters to the White House," comporting with previous literature. This indistinct referencing tactic has been identified by scholars as one of the three primary utilities by which an elite may construct public opinion (Lipari 1999; Fried and Cole 2001; Hart, Jarvis, and Lim 2002). And, as noted above, this allowed the White House to appear to be in touch with public sentiment.

Further, the president often indicated that the letter (or letters) sent to him on specific issues was indicative of the concerns of the larger public. (41) In 58 percent (n = 18) of the cases, the president suggested that the letter he received on a specific policy issue was indicative of a larger segment of mass opinion. (42) Despite most of these statements invoking mass opinion, the intention of the presentation of these letters was to demonstrate the personal influence of the president's policy or message on an individual citizen, rather than a mass effect. (43) In particular, mentions of letters involving drug use were most likely to be identified as singular letters, whereas letters on the issue of the wage-price freezes and busing were most likely to be referenced as representing mass opinion.

Were his claims truthful? Yes, in instances where public opinion polling could be matched to President Nixon's reference to mail opinion, the president's description of mass public opinion represented by the letter referenced in the speech was accurate. For instance, in May 1969, the president requested Congress make the delivery of pornographic materials through the mail a federal crime. In a special message to Congress, he indicated that the mail he was receiving at the White House desired this new policy as well. Indeed, polls from that time suggested 85 percent of the public wanted "stricter state and local laws dealing with such literature" and 76 percent wanted stricter controls on magazines and newspapers. (44) The same was true for President Nixon's references to busing to achieve integration--in a statement opposing busing (March 16, 1972), the president referred to several pieces of mail indicative of "families" against busing. Polling data from just before the president's speech indicated that busing schoolchildren to achieve racial balance was opposed by 73 percent of the public. (45)

Although the president was generally honest about the mail as representative of mass public opinion, he was clearly not outlining the whole story of public preferences. For instance, the president indicated several times (and most frequently in September and October 1971) that the mail he was receiving indicated that most Americans would sacrifice desired raises for price stability and low inflation. Polling from August 1971 indicated that the public supported a ninety-day freeze on wages, prices, and rents by 77 percent. (46) However, other polling indicated that the favorability of the freeze was temporal; the percentage favoring extending the freeze was much lower (at 49 percent) if the freeze lasted beyond ninety days. (47)

The letters that Nixon referred to as reflecting opinion change based upon the administration's policy were also most frequently the salient issues discussed above: Vietnam and the wage-price freeze. In these instances of identified opinion "change," we see letter writers registering support for the president against their own economic position or against their previously held position. Interestingly, in the cases of opinion "change" referred to by the White House, the president often prefaced these descriptions by identifying these letters as "typical of the thousands that came into the White House" or "of the many thousands that have come in to the White House since the peace announcement." (48) This rhetorical device has the effect of suggesting a mass opinion change, of which the letter received at the White House was one of many.

For example, in a nationally televised address on Labor Day 1971, President Nixon referred to a letter from a state employee (whose wife was a schoolteacher) who wrote that he and his wife were both due for salary increases but were willing to sacrifice that raise "for the good of the nation." (49) This was similar to three letters pointed to by Nixon on October 7 of that year, discussed above. On the issue of Vietnam, in particular the issuance of amnesty for draft avoiders, President Nixon during a press conference in 1973 indicated that he received a letter from a group of draft avoiders in a Michigan prison who "wrote very emotionally about what he [Nixon] had done [in Vietnam] and he felt it was an achievement they were very proud of." (50) The opinion change described on these issues hints that the president was attempting to move public opinion in a direction to support his efforts to end the war.

Conclusions and Implications

This article has expanded our empirical understanding of the political uses of public opinion mail, an important addition to the description of the tools available to modern presidential communication. Specifically, I examined the construction of public opinion and the use of public opinion mail to further political ends. Like earlier administrations, the Nixon White House realized the value of public opinion mail. The senior staff in the White House (and the president in particular) were interested in trends in the mail as it represented larger constituencies, contradicting earlier assessments of the nonuse of mail by the White House (Gustafston 1978). However, the Nixon White House was not solely interested in gauging public opinion through the mail; indeed, they had a rotating roster of pollsters to do that. Rather, the archival evidence suggests they used public opinion mail periodically to demonstrate to the public that the White House's position was congruent with the position of the concerned public and, correspondingly, to persuade the public that their position was popular.

The strength of this connection is also important to consider, however. My analysis of presidential statements reveals that President Nixon's references to the distribution of overall opinion mail were vague or not specifically revealed (although I am careful not to generalize past this particular referent). Furthermore, because the full text of most letters was rarely released and a complete disclosure of the opinion trends in the mail was never discussed, consistent with the proprietary use of polling in the White House, this did not allow the media (or anyone else) to confirm or deny the president's assertions about public opinion. This guarded description of the exact nature of public opinion may allow presidents to identify public opinion incorrectly to further their own political agenda.

This is not to imply that the White House was incorrectly identifying public opinion--in fact, my analysis shows that, when polling data could be linked to the president's statement of opinion findings, the president was precise in representing particular letters mentioned in speeches as mass public opinion. Therefore, contradicting earlier assessments that presidents would not be truthful about the nature of public opinion, I find that President Nixon was generally accurate in linking mail-gauged opinion to mass, survey-gauged opinion. One compelling reason that the president was likening mail opinion to mass opinion (when in harmony) was to demonstrate public support on an issue and publicly pursue his policy agenda with the faith of mass public support. These letters were used to humanize the president's policy positions, especially on difficult economic or military issues, something that could not be accomplished with public opinion polls.

Additional work on the subject of public opinion mail (including its utility and function in the White House) will help to expand on these findings and more accurately chart the growth of the public presidency. Indeed, examining additional presidents to determine whether the same conditions and outcomes hold would be the next logical step. In addition, in studying the impact of public opinion mail in the White House, identifying whether or not public opinion mail has a significant effect on presidential decision making on public policy could provide an important comparative point to the value of public opinion polls. Key's (1964) concepts of "latent opinion" activation could be of assistance here. The unique role of "activated" public opinion may serve presidents in a capacity different from opinion gauged by other means.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wish to thank George Edwards, Dick and Jane LeRoy, and two anonymous reviewers in helping to hone the final version of the article. I also wish to thank the University of Idaho's University Research Office and the Bureau of Public Affairs Research for financial support of this project.


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University of Houston

(1.) "Nixon's Methods of Feeling the Pulse." New York Times, December 12, 1969, p. 33.

(2.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, H. R. Haldeman Papers, Mail Operation, "Haldeman to President," June 11, 1971, Box 129, p. 2. In 1969, a "Volunteer Women's program" (with 275 volunteers) was instituted to help read the initial volume of mail. These individuals were estimated to have contributed 25,000 hours to reading presidential mail.

(3.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject Member Office Files (Zeigler), Mail Volume 88, "Keogh Letter on Opinion Mail," June 2, 1970, Box 19. An attached note (from an unknown author) indicated "this letter from Keogh to a local HS teacher contains many excellentct [sic] points on the question of the attention paid to the President's mail--good general background for your future handling of such questions from the press."

(4.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, [SF] WH 4-1, EX WH 4-1 [1/29/69-2/28/69], "Haldeman to Brown," January 27, 1969, Box 9.

(5.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject Member Office Files (Haldeman), Mail Operation, "Melencamp to Kehrli," February 18, 1971, Box 129.

(6.) On the first mail summary submitted to the president on January 31, 1969, he wrote "good job!" and initialed it "RN." Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, [SF] WH 4-1, EX WH 4-1 [1/29/69-2/28/69], "Haldeman to Brown," January 27, 1969, Box 9.

(7.) Similar to the administration's handling of opinion polling data, access to these summaries were tightly controlled and only select members of the senior staff were allowed to handle them. Only one version was created to ensure secrecy, necessitating the documents be passed from person to person. See Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, [CF] WH 4-1 Mail [1971-1974], "Campbell to Gergen," November 2, 1971, "Hullin to Campbell," November 4, 1971, and "Price to Ehrlichman," November 4, 1971, all Box 69.

(8.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File (WH), EX WH 4-1 [Mail] [1/29/69-2/28/69], "Haldeman to Keogh," January 30, 1969, Box 9.

(9.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File (WH), EX WH 4-1 [Mail] [1/29/69-2/28/69], "Haldeman to Keogh," January 30, 1969, Box 9.

(10.) Only "pro" mail received an acknowledgment from the White House.

(11.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File, EX WH 4-1 [Mail] [1/29/69-2/28/69], "Haldeman to Brown," February 3, 1969.

(12.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, [SF] WH 4-1, EX WH 4-1 [1/29/69-2/28/69], "Haldeman to Brown and Melencamp," January 30, 1969, Box 9.

(13.) Ibid.

(14.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Special Files, White House Central Files [CF], WH 4-1 Office Mgmt Mail, "Elliott to Price, et al.," July 31, 1972, Box 69.

(15.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, President's Personal File, Memos--June 1971, "President to Haldeman," June 1, 1971, Box 3.

(16.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, H. R. Haldeman Papers, Mail Operation, "Haldeman to President," June 11, 1971, Box 129, p. 3.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, President's Personal File, Memos-February 1971, "President to Haldeman," no date, Box 3.

(19.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, President's Personal File, Memos--June 1971, "President to Haldeman," June 1, 1971, Box 3.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, H. R. Haldeman Papers, Mail Operation, "Haldeman to President," June 11, 1971, Box 129.

(22.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File (WH), EX WH 4-1 [Mail] [10/1/69-2/13/70], "Melencamp to Mondlock," December 8, 1969, Box 10.

(23.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, [CF] WH 4-1 Mail [1971-1974], "Price to Ehrlichman," November 4, 1971, Box 69.

(24.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File (WH), EX WH 4-1 [Mail] [1/1/71-2/28/71], "Magruder to Haldeman," February 24, 1971, Box 11.

(25.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File (WH), EX WH 4-1 [Mail] Begin--1/28/69, "Woods to Cole," January 25, 1969, Box 9.

(26.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File (WH), EX WH 4-1 [Mail] [3/1/71-3/11/71], "Price to President," March 5, 1971, Box 11.

(27.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File (WH), EX WH 4-1 [Mail] [3/1/71-3/31/71], "Price to President," March 12, 1971, Box 11.

(28.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File (WH), EX WH 4-1 [Mail] [7/11/71-7115171], "Price to President," July 9, 1971, Box 11.

(29.) This search was conducted using the American Freedom Library compilation of the Public Papers of the President (confined to President Nixon's statements). The variations I searched for of the word "mail" included: letter, wrote, written, writing, correspondence, correspond, public opinion, public, and opinion.

(30.) In two instances, there were multiple references to different letters in the same speech. In these cases, to be consistent with my analysis, I coded these letters as individual letters.

(31.) Given the administration's desire to prime and collect solicited mail (from outside ally groups), these letters may or may not have been artificially created by the White House. However, given my interest in cataloging how the White House discussed these letters, whether these letters were representative of the larger public is not the chief concern.

(32.) That is, the letter writer was identified by a race, occupation, class, or relative position in life instead of a more general presidential reference to "the public" or "the mail."

(33.) I thank an anonymous reviewer for making this connection and calling it to my attention.

(34.) If, however, one adds in the single reference to property taxes (2 percent of the data), then the economy is the most frequently cited type of letter.

(35.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File (WH), EX WH 4-1 [Mail] [7/1/71-7/15/71], "Gergen to Price," June 14, 1971, Box 11.

(36.) Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, 1972, 1974. "Radio Address on Crime and Drug Abuse," Item 350, October 15, 1972. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, p. 984.

(37.) Richard Nixon Materials Project, National Archives II, White House Central Files, Subject File (WH), EX WH 4-1 [Mail] [10/1/69-2/13/70], "Melencamp to Mondlock," December 8, 1969, Box 10.

(38.) Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, 1969, 1971. "Remarks at the 'Briefing for Businessmen' Meeting," Item 455, November 21, 1969. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, p. 958.

(39.) Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, 1971, 1972. "Address to the Nation on the Post-Freeze Economic Stabilization Program: 'The Continuing Fight against Inflation,' " Item 325, October 7, 1971. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, p. 1023.

(40.) Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, 1969, 1971. "Letter to University Student Randy J. Dicks on the 'Vietnam Moratorium,'" Item 388, October 13, 1969. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, pp. 798-800.

(41.) To ascertain the intimation by the president that the letter received was indicative of mass opinion, I read each entry recorded for language referring to that end. Specifically, I made a determination of whether or not the letter was indicative of the mass public or a larger group of individuals (even if specific, such as "families" or "immigrants" or "whites and blacks"). This often included such language as "this letter is one of many received at the White House," "this sentiment is shared by thousands of letters sent to me since I took office," and "listen to what people from all walks of life have written me."

(42.) This is compared to thirteen cases (42 percent) where the president did not indicate the letter was part of a larger set of opinion and ten cases where it was not applicable.

(43.) In one instance, on August 31, 1970, the president indicated that the mail was valuable not simply for the volume but for the "changes that occur." He indicated that the Vietnam War and the "possibilities of becoming involved in the Mideast" are the top two concerns, followed by "issue(s) related to order and justice." See Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, 1970, 1971. "Television Interview for CBS Morning News," Item 278, August 31, 1970. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, p. 693. This seems to comport with Gallup's finding of the "most important problems" facing the country. A Gallup Poll on July 31, 1970, indicated that Vietnam was the most important issue (at 23 percent) followed by "youth protests, unrest on campus, demonstrations, hippies" (at 17 percent). Contrary to the president's assertion, however, potential involvement in the Middle East did not appear on the list.

(44.) The exact questions (both from Gallup on May 20, 1969) were "Here are some questions about obscene literature sent through the mails.., would you like to see stricter state and local laws dealing with such literature, or not?" and "What about magazines and newspapers sold on newsstands. Would you like to see stricter state and local laws dealing with such literature, or not?"

(45.) The question asks (from Louis Harris and Associates on March 7, 1972) "Would you favor or oppose busing school children to achieve racial balance?"

(46.) The question (from Opinion Research Corporation on August 22, 1971) asked "I am going to read a number of measures that President Nixon ordered or proposed relating to the economy. For each one, I would like you to tell me whether you approve or disapprove of that measure ... 90-day freeze on wages, prices and rents."

(47.) The question (from Louis Harris and Associates in September 1971) asked "Would you favor or oppose the federal government extending the wage-price freeze beyond 90 days?"

(48.) See Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, 1971, 1972. "Address to the Nation on Labor Day," Item 285, September 6, 1971. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, p. 934; and Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, 1973, 1975. "The President's News Conference of January 31, 1973," Item 23, January 31, 1973. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, p. 55.

(49.) Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, 1971, 1972. "Address to the Nation on Labor Day," Item 285, September 6, 1971. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, p. 934.

(50.) Public Papers of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, 1973, 1975. "The President's News Conference of January 31, 1973," Item 23, January 31, 1973. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, p. 55.

Brandon Rottinghaus is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston. His research and teaching interests include the presidency, public opinion, executive-legislative relations, and research methods. His work on these subjects has appeared in Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, Political Science Quarterly, American Politics Research, and Congress and the Presidency, among others, and a forthcoming edited book from Cambridge University Press.

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