Verbal Certainty in American Politics: An Overview and Extension

By Hart, Roderick P.; Childers, Jay P. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Verbal Certainty in American Politics: An Overview and Extension


Hart, Roderick P., Childers, Jay P., Presidential Studies Quarterly


One of the most important questions about political leadership is also one of the oldest: How strong must a leader be? For many, the answer is simple: A leader must be the strongest person on the block, able to conquer all rivals. But a moment's reflection shows that politics is more than fisticuffs, more than weight lifting and hammer throwing, too. The ability to calculate how much force to use in a given instance spells the difference between the wise leader and the failed despot. When it comes to strength, politics is an art where a deft interpersonal touch can sometimes win the day and where harshness or bluster can lead to regime change. That principle holds more often in democracies than autocracies but, even there, the misapplication of force can doom a leader, a fate suffered in recent years by Idi Amin, Ferdinand Marcos, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic, to name but a few.

To be successful, a democratic leader must become an oxymoron, promising all the strength that followership allows. A democratic leader must be strong and yet listen, proclaim a vision without becoming transfixed by it. Michael Novak (1985) has famously declared an American president to be a priest, a prophet, and a king but he could just as easily have called him a First Acolyte or First Citizen. A democratic leader hangs constantly on tenterhooks.

Such tensions have been especially sharp in the United States. Harry Truman, the ultimate dealmaker of the 1920s, became a man of extraordinary resolve just 20 years later. Dwight Eisenhower, who oversaw the allied landing in North Africa and served as Supreme Commander in France, became a surprisingly flexible politician when living in the White House. How did they know when to stand and when to bend, when to hold forth and when to keep their own counsel?

Those attracted to traditional models of politics feature John Kennedy's performance during the Bay of Pigs or Ronald Reagan's stand at the Berlin Wall as the personification of leadership. But they could just as easily have looked elsewhere for their models: Lyndon Johnson, a man of the South, delicately negotiating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or Richard Nixon repudiating his hortatory past when opening up the West to Red China. The first President Bush found it prudent to stop short of Baghdad in 1991 while the second President Bush brought the fight directly to Iraq's supreme leader a dozen years later. Firmness and tractability: Which to use, when?

Figure 1 provides a simple depiction of the options. The vertical axis indicates whether the president has taken some overt, empirical action (e.g., sending in the National Guard, interdicting foreign ships, etc.) or used rhetoric instead (arguing for tax cuts, for example, or soothing the nation during times of travail). The president's options along this continuum differ in revocability. After a certain point, that is, Air Force bombers cannot be recalled, while an executive order on toxic waste dumps can be abandoned or rewritten at will. Presidential speech varies too especially in comsummatoriness--with some remarks being entirely ceremonial (e.g., a state eulogy or a May Day celebration) while others are spoken in policy-making contexts (e.g., the State of the Union address) and hence have more injunctive force.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Cutting across the action/language continuum is a measure of the president's performative strength. Is the act emphatic and unyielding (hostilities commenced, taxes increased) or is it more tentative (e.g., a low-key diplomatic mission)? Presidential speech can also vary along this continuum, with some remarks being unmistakably clear (e.g., George W. Bush's invitation to the Iraqi commanders to "bring it on") while others are equivocal (e.g., James Buchanan's "what is right and what is practicable are two different things") or opaque (e.g., Bill Clinton's "it depends on what the definition of 'is' is"). …

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