The presidency and the promotion of domestic crisis: John Kennedy's management of the 1962 steel crisis.

Author:Bostdorff, Denise M.

In March 1962, the United Steelworkers of America reached an early labor settlement with the U.S. steel industry. The contract included no increase in wage rates, but provided fringe benefit improvements that amounted to an increase of 10 cents an hour or 2.5 percent.(1) President John Kennedy was particularly pleased, for his administration had played a major role in the negotiations. Publicly and privately, Kennedy had advocated an "early labor settlement consistent with price stability in steel" as a means to avoid inflation and to encourage economic growth.(2) The new labor contract indicated that the president's call for wage restraint on the part of the union and corresponding price restraint on the part of the steel industry would be heeded.

Unfortunately for Kennedy, success was short-lived. On April 10, at 5:45 p.m., Roger Blough of U.S. Steel came to the Oval Office and handed the president a four-page announcement that the company already had delivered to the media. The press release stated that U.S. Steel would, effective the following day at noon, raise the price of steel by $6.00 per ton.(3) Kennedy was furious, for the price increase not only placed his economic program in jeopardy, but also posed a threat to his leadership. At the president's behest, the United Steelworkers had agreed to a modest settlement and, by the time of Blough's announcement, already had signed contracts with the major steel corporations and hence legally committed themselves.(4) To make matters worse, U.S. Steel's announcement of a price increase was immediately followed by similar announcements from other steel companies.(5)

In the days that followed, Kennedy used the bully pulpit of the presidency to escalate a steel price increase into a crisis that threatened the freedom and security of all Americans. Public pressure built until Friday, April 13, when Bethlehem Steel was the first to roll back prices; U.S. Steel quickly followed.(6)

In this article, we treat Kennedy's management of the steel crisis as an exemplar of domestic crisis promotion, whereby presidents explicitly advance a claim of crisis or implicitly treat a domestic issue as a crisis through their public rhetoric. The word "crisis" defines an issue as especially threatening, which focuses public attention on a problem. Unlike the term "war," crisis implies a short-term issue of urgency, a conflict that will be resolved fairly quickly and with limited sacrifice.(7) In April 1962, Kennedy's public statements escalated the steel controversy into a crisis; he made it known, through word and symbolic deeds, that his administration would not stand for the steel companies' behavior. Although Kennedy had little or no legal authority to force a price rescission, his crisis promotion allowed him to obtain one nonetheless. We believe our examination of the steel crisis as domestic crisis promotion is useful for two basic reasons.

First, numerous communication studies of presidential crisis rhetoric exist, but almost all of these deal with foreign policy issues.(8) In contrast, only a handful of scholars have examined domestic crises. Although these studies have been most insightful, their focus has been on something other than the characteristics of domestic crisis rhetoric. For example, David Zarefsky examined Johnson's value appeals during the summer riots of 1964-68, while Dan Hahn concentrated on the sermonic qualities of Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech.(9) In two studies--one authored by Steven Goldzwig and George Dionisopoulos, and another by Theodore Windt--scholars traced Kennedy's shift from passive support to public advocacy of civil rights, whereas a third study by John Murphy analyzed how the president sought to defuse the civil rights issue, rather than promote it as a crisis.(10) Amor Kiewe's 1994 edited work, The Modern Presidency and Crisis Rhetoric, includes four fine case studies of domestic crisis, but these authors, too, have goals other than discerning the characteristics of domestic crisis discourse.(11) Only Windt's 1990 analysis of Kennedy and the steel crisis has postulated that a particular president's arguments might be representative of a genre that Windt called domestic crisis rhetoric.(12) The focus of our study attends to an aspect of presidential discourse that has often been overlooked.

Second, our choice of Kennedy and the steel crisis as an exemplar of domestic crisis promotion is most fitting given the standards that Kennedy set for the presidents that followed. As Samuel Kernell points out in Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership, presidents today are more likely to "go public" or to appeal directly to citizens for policy support, rather than bargain with Congress, than they were in the past. He writes that going public is a "strategic adaptation" to the ready availability of the mass media in an information age; Kernell also notes that Kennedy's reliance on press interviews, special briefings, and other alternative forms of press relations provided the model that his successors followed.(13) We argue that domestic crisis promotion is a particular form of "going public" in which the president appeals for citizen support to resolve an issue that he explicitly or implicitly treats as a crisis. Moreover, we claim that to understand more fully recent efforts at domestic crisis promotion--such as Bin Clinton and health care--one has to examine the historical precedents. Kennedy was certainly not the first president to promote a domestic crisis, but the amalgamation of a modern mass media system, his sophisticated techniques of media management, and the political success that the steel crisis represented for his administration make an examination of the steel crisis through the strategic lens of crisis promotion an important one.

We first discuss crisis promotion and how it differs in regard to foreign and domestic issues. We then examine Kennedy's management of the steel crisis. Our study confirms several of Windt's insights--his claims that Kennedy cast steel executives as domestic adversaries at odds with the American people and that the president used symbolic actions to reinforce his words--and also contributes some findings of its own. Specifically, we argue that domestic crisis rhetoric has four characteristics: magnification, polarization, value dissociation, and symbolic actions.

Crisis Promotion: Foreign Crises versus Domestic Crises

We argue that presidents promote crises when they explicitly advance a claim of crisis or implicitly treat an issue as a crisis in their public rhetoric. The choice of the term "promote" to describe this type of communication activity is most appropriate because "to promote" means to advance a claim and to bring it to the attention of others. Thus, presidents "promote" a sense of crisis whether they truly believe such an assertion is justified or that such an allegation is politically expedient. To gain citizen support for their position and to protect and/or enhance their public image of leadership, presidents who promote crises I must not only establish the existence of a crisis, but they must "manage" that crisis by attempting to resolve it and, especially, by trying to persuade citizens that their resolution is the most appropriate one available.(14)

In both foreign and domestic crisis promotion, presidents use language to instill a sense of urgency. More specifically, a president attempts to convince listeners that some issue constitutes a crisis deserving of their attention and that they should immediately support his preferred policy in order to forestall dire consequences. This similarity notwithstanding, foreign and domestic crisis promotion also operate under different constraints which, in turn, affect their characteristics.

In the realm of foreign affairs, presidents have the legal authority, through both law and historical precedent, to implement policies unilaterally.(15) The president is the commander in chief and also the chief diplomat. Hence, he can send troops abroad and negotiate treaties first and then assume the mantle of moral leadership later in order to glean support for his fait accompli, a move that tends to stifle debate altogether as both citizens and Congress "rally 'round" the president. Despite Congress's attempts to constrain unilateral foreign policy making by presidents, numerous scholars have pointed out that presidents have actually increased loopholes in the War Powers Resolution and/or arguing their power by exploiting that U.N. resolutions supercede those of Congress.(16)

In the domestic sphere, conversely, the president typically is limited in the steps he may unilaterally take and is much more dependent upon public persuasion in order to have his policies carried out--whether he desires an end to rioting or congressional passage of an economic package designed to reduce unemployment. Although presidents might wish it otherwise, their discourse about domestic crises necessarily invites public deliberation over their preferred policy resolutions and thereby makes policy implementation more difficult for presidents to achieve.

Another difference between foreign and domestic crisis promotion lies in the ability to personify an enemy. According to Richard Cherwitz and Kenneth Zagacki, foreign crisis rhetoric is a type of epideictic oratory "where the ritual of identifying and blaming adversaries is performed."(17) Denise Bostdorff, in contrast, found that an emphasis on victimage is a common--albeit not essential--component of foreign crisis rhetoric, yet even she points out that presidents who do not rely heavily on victimage portray scenes of danger in their discourse in which foreign actors have caused some harm.(18) Foreign enemies are always easy to identify and vilify because they are "different," distant, and average Americans know relatively little about other countries.

In contrast, domestic crises do not...

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