The President as Interpreter-In-Chief

By Mary E. Stuckey | Go to book overview

argument against looking to the president as the only real source of national legitimacy and national purpose. (And it is an argument that is made in more detail in later chapters.) This tendency did not begin under Eisenhower or Kennedy, but it was exacerbated and encouraged by them. The consequences of this tendency were not fully felt at Kennedy's death, but at the political failures of his successors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.


Conclusions

This period continues the era of the personalized president and the systematized policies of public governing. Eisenhower and Kennedy were acutely conscious of their images and knew how to design appeals that were appropriate to them. Their status was created and assured by their adept use of the infant television technology. Eisenhower and Kennedy attained and maintained their position of power with the aid of television and without the benefit of a strong political party, and by deliberately eschewing partisan rhetoric. This appeal was bolstered by the medium through which it was frequently transmitted.

As talented as Eisenhower undoubtedly was, he was surpassed by the "videogenic" abilities of his successor. Kennedy, in many ways the logical extension of Eisenhower's tactics, brought image politics and the various tactics associated with "news management" to a new level. For both presidents, the requirements of public relations seemed to supersede the requirements of governance. The rhetorical opportunities of the office are becoming constrained by the need for a continual flow of presidential messages as television and the public habituate themselves to an expectation of a continual presidential presence.

This is the legacy that Kennedy and Eisenhower left to their successors: an understanding of the importance of the media, especially television, combined with the knowledge that popularity can become a mighty force, capable of eclipsing political skill and even political wisdom. The search for political popularity through the control of popular perceptions characterizes the performance and public rhetoric of both Johnson and Nixon, and is the subject of the following chapter.

-68-

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