A Presidency Upstaged: The Public Leadership of George H.W, Bush. By Lori Cox Han. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2011. 242 pp.
The presidency of George H. W. Bush provided an intriguing test of the major scholarly works on the public presidency of the last several decades. Starting with Richard Neustadt, and continuing through Samuel Kernell, Jeffrey Tulis, and many others, it became a well-established maxim that success in the modern presidency depends heavily on a president's public communication skills. A litany of the most heralded twentieth-century presidents tends to coincide with the most skilled communicators. Indeed, it has been increasingly hard to imagine a successful president with poor, or even mediocre, communications skills.
In A Presidency Upstaged, Lori Cox Han offers a fascinating and useful look at the White House communications operation of George H. W. Bush. Normally, a book about the failed communications efforts of a president with a middling reputation would be of minor interest, but Bush's approach to communications was so divergent from other recent presidents that it provides us with a rare opportunity to examine a speculative question that has often crossed the minds of presidency scholars: Could a nonrhetorical approach to presidential leadership be successful in the modern era?
As Han argues in her opening and concluding chapters, the verdict, based on Bush's presidency, is likely to be "no." However, this conclusion largely stems from Bush's failure to win reelection to a second term and overlooks his overwhelming popularity during the first two-thirds of his presidency. The generally negative assessment of Bush's presidency is also largely based on the argument that he failed to establish a coherent vision of leadership in domestic policy, although this does not sufficiently account for Bush's apparent Madisonian view of deference to congressional initiative in domestic affairs.
Han provides us with a compelling portrait of Bush's approach to public rhetoric by drawing upon extensive archival materials from the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, most of which have just become recently available. (A minor nitpick: the book could have benefitted from more extensive interviews with former Bush advisors.) These materials show us a president with a deep aversion to the extensively stage-managed (and widely heralded) communications style of his predecessor, Ronald...