Opening the president's mailbag: the Nixon administration's rhetorical use of public opinion mail.

Author:Rottinghaus, Brandon
Position:Richard Nixon - Essay

The connection between presidential policy rhetoric and public preferences is critical to democratic government, especially if policy rhetoric potentially slips into noncongruence or misrepresentation (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000). Scholars have adeptly documented the use and evaluation of public opinion inside the White House in observance of the perceived (and often "crafted") connection between public opinion and presidential action (Jacobs and Shapiro 1995a; Geer 1996; Eisinger and Brown 1998; Heith 2003; Eisinger 2003). Several other scholars have adroitly described the tangible and responsive connections between public opinion and presidential action, especially on highly salient issues (Cohen 1999; Canes-Wrone, Herron, and Shotts 2001; Canes-Wrone and Shotts 2004; Canes-Wrone 2006).

In addition, the instrumental value of public opinion (especially public opinion polling) in advancing the political goals of presidents has been explored with significant depth. Specifically, public opinion has been identified as being useful for constructing policy-based rhetoric (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000), identifying political supporters and their issues (Heith 2000), as an introspective look at relative executive popularity (Towle 2004), and in navigating the "permanent campaign" from the White House (Ornstein and Mann 2000; Heith 2003). Scholars have also investigated activities of presidents when shaping and talking about public opinion (Herbst 1998; Cook, Barbaras, and Page 2002). These innovative works have significantly advanced our insights into presidential communication routines, especially those related to public opinion, yet more inquiry remains to be done.

Specifically, the rhetorical construction of public opinion by presidents has important implications for public policy (Hart and Johnson 1999; Stuckey 2004). Constructions of public opinion by public officials can be taken as the "truth" of public opinion, and this is especially true for the president who purports to speak for "the American people." Such predictions of public opinion shape a collective identity, whose creation "can be used to legitimatize the collectivity in terms of the speaker's own vision" (Fried and Cole 2001, 223). Further, the president may discuss issues or publics in ways that appear to be congruent with public preferences but are in reality reflective of the preferences of the White House (see Morris and Stuckey 1997; Jacobs and Shapiro 2000; Beasley 2004). This constructed political reality can quickly become evidence of mass public support for an issue because the public believes public opinion to be a settled matter and consequently desires to not express an opinion outside of the original boundary (Edelman 1977; Noelle-Neumann 1993; Herbst 1995).

Scholarship on the communicative value of public opinion has, however, overlooked one compelling element to modern presidential communications: trends in public opinion mail and its instrumental value to the White House. Theoretically, public opinion mail has real value for the White House, especially for a president who is often isolated from members of the public (Rottinghaus 2006). In particular, public opinion mail presents real, unfiltered, and textual opinions to elected officials and for that reason has important connections to representation and democratic governance (Powlick 1995). In this context, public opinion via the mail has also been shown to be significant in motivating political action (Small 1987; Rottinghaus 2007). Scholars of public opinion (and those interested in the effect of opinion on policy making) have been interested in the effect of "activated" opinion (see Key 1964, 275-76; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993), and this empirical work can extend those impressions.

Very few individual studies have examined the internal White House use of public opinion mail. The scholars who have documented the use of opinion mail in the White House have been limited to temporal, historical evaluations (Sussmann 1959), to individual administrations (Howe 1934; Smith 1949; Sussmann 1956, 1963), or to an annotated chronological list of mail sent to the president (Holzer 1998; Giangreco and Moore 1999; Levine and Levine 2002). Ultimately, we have little empirical evidence documenting the instrumental value or political uses of public opinion mail to a modern White House more concerned with public communication than at any time in history. This is an important addition to our understanding of the role of public opinion in shaping political (especially communicative) behavior.

Indeed, the practice of presidents constructing public opinion is particularly relevant, and potentially dangerous, when considering references to public opinion mail. The trouble may arise because the ability to invoke "public opinion" through single references to opinion may represent a potentially manipulatory effect because no other political actors can contest the meaning of the president's mail (Edelman 1977). If the president can shape and move public opinion with inaccurate definitions of opinion, the manipulatory power of the bully pulpit enlarges, presidential influence in the policymaking process is artificially inflated, and the president may mischaracterize certain segments of the American public (Beasley 2004). This work is therefore at the critical intersection of communication and public opinion and allows us to examine trends in public presidential persuasion more clearly and comprehensively.

In this article, therefore, we expand the empirical discussion of the value of public opinion mail by exploring the uses of public opinion mail to advance the political goals of the Nixon White House, specifically in constructing public opinion. Although these results are not necessarily generalizable beyond the Nixon administration, we weave an important addition to the literature on the instrumental political uses of public opinion, rhetorical construction of public opinion (specifically with public opinion mail), and the potential for manipulation or misrepresentation of public preferences in the White House. This approach allows us to more accurately examine the trends of opinion gauging in the modern presidency (see Eisinger 2003; Heith 2003) and expands our understanding of the specific tactics used by the White House to persuade the public (see Jacobs and Shapiro 2000). The Nixon administration's ability to use public opinion mail is a noteworthy political innovation in modern presidential communication. This article broadly contributes to this literature by examining and evaluating this heretofore undisclosed presidential communications strategy.

In our analysis, we explore this topic by utilizing heretofore unexplored archival material from the Nixon Materials Project at the National Archives demonstrating the Nixon administration's desire to use public opinion mail for political purposes. We also combine this archival analysis with a collected data set of public statements referencing public opinion mail. We find the administration strategically utilized public opinion mail in several ways. The internal White House strategy to use public opinion mail in public speeches originated with the Nixon administration (specifically from the president himself) and centralized the process of identifying and selecting interesting letters for presidential communicative use. In examining public references to opinion mail by the president, we find that President Richard Nixon used public opinion mail as evidence of a strong (and diverse) connection between his policy positions and the public's preferences. In most instances, President Nixon referred to a piece of public opinion mail to demonstrate the harmony of his position with the public interest, especially on salient issues of the time, including the Vietnam War and the wage and price freeze to combat inflation. The president also exercised fidelity in accurately identifying similarities between the trends in the mail and mass opinion--the ultimate effect was to assist the president in persuading the public of the value of public opinion to the White House.

The Nixon Administration and Public Opinion

The Nixon White House broke ground in several ways regarding the evolution of new political tools to gauge and shape public opinion. The Nixon administration began the centralization and expansion of public opinion polling in the White House by adding a rotating roster of pollsters (Jacobs and Shapiro 1995a; Eisinger 2003). As a result, President Nixon's public opinion apparatus was significantly greater than that of his immediate predecessor Lyndon Johnson (21 percent greater), reaching the apex of polling in the White House (Jacobs and Burns 2004). There were also manipulative efforts afoot in the gauging of public opinion to manipulate public opinion by pressuring pollsters. In particular, the administration was covertly pressuring the Gallup and Harris polls to ask survey questions in a manner designed to elicit a public response favorable to the administration (Jacobs and Shapiro 1995b).

The Nixon administration's use of the mail as a political tool was blended with their interest in public opinion polling--indeed, these tools provided additive value to an administration interested in reading the public thought. The Nixon administration, and the president in particular, viewed incoming opinion mail with a keen eye for political strategies in addition to its value for internally conveying special interest and general public preferences. This insight is confirmed by a rare acknowledgment of the normally secretive means of gauging public opinion by the Nixon administration to the New York Times. 1 Public opinion polling was used (and abused) in similar ways by President Nixon and his staff, in particular by selectively releasing "supportive" results and "priming" pollsters to query the public about certain issues with slanted question wording (Jacobs...

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