Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency.

Author:Oddo, John
Position:Book review

Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency. By Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012. 263 pp.

In Creatures of Politics, linguistic anthropologists Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein seek to examine how American presidential candidates convey message. The authors do not mean the actual substance of campaign talk, nor the issues on which a candidate runs, but the often choreographed symbolism that suggests a candidate's moral character. A message, then, is a kind of personal brand or "biographical aura" (p. 100) that one associates with candidates, depending on the constellation of signs that surround and emanate from them. These signs include not only the candidates' words but also how the candidates (mis)pronounce those words, pause among them, and manage (or fail to manage) gestures, clothing, and facial expressions. In addition, each candidate's message is structured by other political actors--spokespersons, agents from opposing campaigns, pundits, and reporters--all of whom seek to use a host of semiotic resources in order to craft the candidate's characterological essence.

In their wide-ranging analysis of message, Lempert and Silverstein examine speeches, debates, ads, interviews, and news narratives. The result is an often-fascinating study of contemporary electoral politics and journalism. First, in Chapter 2, the authors discuss the institutional necessity of messaging in political campaigns. Analyzing the 2008 presidential contest, they show that even candidates who wish to rise above "politics as usual" (p. 42) inevitably brand themselves and their opponents in melodramatic terms. Chapter 3 investigates how a candidate's brand is related to whether and how that candidate appears to be addressing "the issues" (p. 105). In a revealing study of the 2008 Democratic primaries, the authors examine how politicians and journalists alike comanufactured Hillary Clinton's brand, creating the impression that she had equivocated on an issue and implicating her as an inconsistent candidate.

In Chapter 4, the authors tackle what they term "ethno-blooperology" (p. 122), the way innocent and not-so-innocent gaffes come to be seen as revelatory of a candidate's true character. They show, for instance, how Howard Dean's infamous 2003 scream was interpreted by commentators as evidence of his interior instability--and unelectability. Chapter 5 focuses on the semiotic processes...

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