Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Evolution of the Rhetorical Presidency and Getting Past the Traditional/modern Divide

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Evolution of the Rhetorical Presidency and Getting Past the Traditional/modern Divide

Article excerpt

Almost six years ago, as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University, I was first introduced to a division that exists in the classification of presidential rhetoric and, indeed, of presidents themselves. The "modern" rhetorical presidency, a term largely coined by James Ceasar, Glen Thurow, Jeffrey Tulis, and Joseph Bessette in their article "The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency" (1981) and more fully developed by Tulis in his book The Rhetorical Presidency (1987), has come to dominate presidential study, as well as the rhetoric of presidential scholarship itself. Indeed, because the modern presidency is presented in these works as the true origin of the rhetoric and the power of the contemporary presidency that we observe today, this demarcation is often used as a jumping-off point for much of the research in the field (Campbell 1996; Greenstein, Berman, and Felzenberg 1977; Landy 1985; Liebovich 2001; McConnell 1967; Medhurst 1996a, 1996b; Pfiffner 2000; Polsby 1973; Rozell and Pederson 1997; Shaw 1987; Stuckey 1997). Additionally, if studies do not begin their analysis with a modern president, then they most likely busy themselves with attempting to determine the exact point of the origination of the modern (Gamm and Smith 1998; Greenstein 1978, 1982, 1988, 2000, 2006; Greenstein, Berman, and Felzenberg 1977; Kernell 1997; Milkis 1998; Smith and Smith 1990; Tulis 1987, 1996, 1998).

While initially excavating the subject matter, the questions that seemed to emerge from many works studying the presidency were: Where does the modern rhetorical presidency truly begin? And who can be seen as the originator of the style of political activity and presidential rhetorical prowess that we see today? There was also (and still is) a debate over whether the modern presidency began with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or even Teddy Roosevelt. Looking to provide more insight into the subject, I dove headfirst into the fray and used a sampling of 50 State of the Union addresses to make observations on the conflict.

In my 2003 article, some of my findings, which are questioned and largely misinterpreted by Chad Murphy in his critical analysis, posited that there might be "three observable eras in the evolution of the state of the union address" and that "the modern [period] begins with Woodrow Wilson and continues to the present day" (343). However, the main thrust of the article, and a conclusion almost completely ignored in Murphy's analysis, was that "although format changes and rhetorical changes have occurred in presidential rhetoric, the traditional/modern paradigm, seemingly so widely accepted, may warrant revision and re-evaluation" (343).

In addition, I found that "because of the many variables at play within consideration of presidential rhetoric, it is nearly impossible to say with confidence that the observed changes are the result of single individuals" (343). In this essay, one of my primary purposes is to respond to the queries raised by Murphy. However, the bigger question that needs to be examined in the realm of presidential scholarship is, yet again, the propriety of the traditional/modern dichotomy. I believe that the use of this paradigm is not only a hindrance to fully understanding the development of presidential power and rhetoric, it is a misnomer that is utilized for simplicity's sake at the cost of extensive and extremely insightful research.

The Evolution of the Modern Rhetorical Presidency: A Critical Response

In his essay, Murphy does an excellent job of taking the much-needed next step for an examination of presidential rhetoric and the State of the Union address. In order to produce a clearer picture of the development of the State of the Union address and the changes that have taken place therein, he includes all of the annual messages in his study. He asserts, "Consequently, I am able to more clearly identify the periods of presidential rhetoric and locate the durable shift in contemporary presidential speech making. …

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