Direct address: from president to the people
The Rhetorical Presidency, by Jeffrey K. Tulis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 209 pp. $19.95. The Sound of Leadership: Presidential Communication in the Modern Age, by Roderick P. Hart. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 277 pp. $14.95 (paperback).
In 1793, at his second presidential inauguration, George Washington delivered a two-paragraph speech in which he promised to speak later at a proper occasion; in 1861, Abraham Lincoln refused to speak about an impending civil war and was loudly applauded; in 1976, Gerald Ford, a rhetorical iron man, delivered 682 speeches, or, assuming a 12-hour workday, about one speech every six hours.
Have we changed from a nation of tight-lipped presidents to a nation of talkative leaders?
Jeffrey Tulis, in ``The Rhetorical Presidency,'' explores the rhetorical underpinnings of the modern presidency. After keen excursions into political theory and American history, Tulis concludes that with Woodrow Wilson the presidency changed dramatically, the concept of speaking to the people was truly born, and the president became primarily a rhetorician.
Roderick Hart, in ``The Sound of Leadership,'' takes a different research approach but arrives at the same conclusion. Hart's book is a report on an extensive data-collecting effort. After coding and classifying the speeches of presidents from Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan, Hart demonstrates, quite capably, how the rhetorical pulse has quickened, how the presidency has become ``a rhetorical machine, grinding out four, five, six speeches a day, all carefully tailored to the wants and whims of little pockets of listeners.''
But the essence of these two books is not the quantity of presidential speeches. Rather, these two books, each adeptly written and well researched, leave the reader with a frightening sense of ``all talk, no action.''
With a succinct history of Woodrow Wilson's personal drive on behalf of the League of Nations, Tulis demonstrates how the President went ``over the heads of Congress'' and argued his case to the American people. This, one might say, is democracy at its purest, but what consequence does it entail? Tulis writes that ``the rhetorical presidency can be seen as subverter of the routines of government rather than as a sign of a maturing democracy.''
He argues that, in the case of the League of Nations, as in all other over-the-heads-of-Congress cases, the two rhetorical situations create a contradiction; what is necessary to persuade senators does not necessarily persuade the people, and vice versa. Democracy, Tulis implies, would be better served if the president kept distinct congressional leadership and popular appeal.
After documenting the rhetorical stamina of modern presidents, especially those following John Kennedy, Hart delves into the meaning and problems of the rhetorical presidency:
The American presidency is a kind of symbolic cocoon because the political traditions of the nation prohibit presidents from taking matters directly into their own hands.... Presidents are often left with little other than speech. But this is hardly to say that they are therefore left with nothing.... In using speech as frequently as they do, presidents thereby may be tapping the very essences of their presidencies.
Hart suggests that it is not so important that modern presidents spend more time saying less of substance but that ``a rhetorically minded president often gives less scrutiny to the conceptual heft of the ideas he peddles and more to who will buy what he has to sell.''
This encapsulates the problem of the rhetorical presidency.
What Tulis and Hart show is that rhetoric has become the primary means of performing the act of presidential leadership. Hart says of Gerald Ford, for example, ``he sensed ... that by acting presidential he would become presidential.''
It would be unfair to neglect the audience of modern, rhetorical presidents. Tulis and Hart explore the role of the news media in their political analysis. Regardless of the driving force presented by the media (depicted as insatiable consumers of presidential words, irrespective of substance), they cannot be blamed for the content of presidential speeches. In fact, Hart writes, ``It is more than a bit ironic that an era that has made public discussion so technologically feasible has also produced so little of communicative excellence.''
Just where does all this theoretical and empirical research leave us? The image of long-winded, talkative politicians has endured in American culture. Isn't the result of these two books a mere demonstration that the image is still true today? No. I think it is more important.
Clearly, a part of the president's function is rhetorical. But rhetoric, from Aristotle's treatise to today, means ``packaging words effectively.'' Packaging, of itself, is not harmful, but in all cases there must be something to be ``packaged.'' The modern president seems preoccupied with rhetorical packaging; others, then, must be creating, evaluating, deciding - in short, governing. And that is the peril of the rhetorical presidency. In a grand sense, it does subvert democracy.
Tulis and Hart have each provided notable works. Their research methods are complementary; their demonstrations are strong; their conclusions, basically the same conclusion, are timely, important, and chilling.
Ralph Braccio is an associate with ICF Inc., a Washington-based public-policy consulting firm.