Evolution of the modern rhetorical presidency: presidential presentation and development of the state of the union address.

Author:Teten, Ryan L.
 
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He [the president] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

--U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section III

More than the founders ever envisioned, the presidency is at the center of policy debates. From "going public" (1) to achieve his plans and goals as described by Samuel Kernell (1997) to bargaining with the public and Congress as observed by Richard Neustadt (1960), the modern president uses his rhetorical opportunities for many different purposes. After all, "a president who wishes to lead a nation rather than only the executive branch must be a loquacious president.... Speeches are the core of the modern presidency" (Gelderman 1997, 8-9). But as seen in Jeffrey Tulis's The Rhetorical Presidency (1987), this was not always the case. In the past, speech making, as well as public appeal in the content of speeches, was not only infrequent but discouraged due to precedent and technology.

Other scholars, such as Halford Ryan (1993), Smith and Smith (1994, 1985), Colin Seymore-Ure (1982), Richard Ellis (1998), Ellis and Kirk (1998), Greenstein (2000), Laracey (2002), and Lim (2002) have further examined the rhetorical past of the presidency to discover clues about how it began, when it changed, and the implications of this institutional shift for our political process. Indeed,

The presidency over time has become larger and more complex than any one of its players, having acquired a portion of its identity from each who has won the part. No one person ever fully fulfills the role; the office includes all its occupants in its encompassing nature. (Fields 1996, 12) Drawing evidence from presidential rhetoric, scholars attempt to trace this complex and intertwined evolution of the modern president. This effort involves identifying not only trends in the presidency but also which presidents were responsible for these changes. These numerous studies have merits, but they suffer at times, not only from inability to obtain consistent documents across time but also from generalizations made from small samples and limited comparisons.

This article builds from prior presidential rhetorical studies and hopes to provide insight into possible explanations for the modern rhetorical presidency as well as an analysis of the development of modern presidential rhetoric. I have selected, as a medium, a sample of state of the union addresses from George Washington to Bill Clinton to examine public address and identification, presidential policy pushing, and even "going public." My findings attempt neither to disprove suggestions that the modern rhetorical presidency began with Theodore Roosevelt as suggested by some (Gamm and Smith 1998; Milkis 1998; Kernell 1997 (2)) nor to displace studies claiming that the modern rhetorical presidency originates with the watershed presidency and rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson as suggested by Tulis (1998). This study instead finds an evolution of length and rhetorical verbiage within state of the union addresses that helps to shed light on the differences between and refine the definition of the modern and the traditional presidency distinction. I find that Wilson not only set precedents with his state of the union address that were followed by subsequent presidents but also that the rhetoric he employed provided a divergence from previous presidential speech-making patterns. The study here suggests that Wilson indeed exhibits patterns of speech and communication original in their kind and unrealized by previous presidents. However, it is unclear whether this is due to Wilson himself or the result of the rhetorical shift necessary in the change to public presentation of the state of the union address.

This study does not attempt to supplant scholarly interpretations of the traditional versus the modern presidencies (Greenstein 2000; Bimes and Skowronek 1998) or presidential development of policy and agenda (Hill 1998; Cohen 1995; Ragsdale 1987; Brace and Hinckley 1991; Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles 2001). Nor does it debate the changes in campaigns, elections, congressional relations, and political parties as examined by Kumar (2001), Peabody (2001), Powell (1999), Dahl (1990), Gamm and Smith, (1998), Lowi (1985), Skowronek (1993), and Schlesinger (1973) that have inarguably had significant impact on the institution of the presidency and the operation therein. Instead, I attempt to add insight to these debates through an examination and evaluation on the rise and development of the modern rhetorical presidency as it now exists seen through the light of state of the union addresses. Beneficial in their presence across time, they provide a consistent means of rhetorical examination of the presidency. I also consider whether these changes themselves have led to alterations in presidential address as a necessity versus a particular innovation of an individual president.

Studying Presidential Rhetoric

The state of the union address is undeniably one rhetorical creation that presidents today use to convey their thoughts, propose their own programs, communicate with the public, and set the stage for the year to come. As mentioned above, it is a presentation that can be readily found and compared across all the presidents to mark changes in speech, address, and other elements of delivery. In addition, variables such as the state of the union's history of presentation, technological changes, different presidents, change in format and language, and length of speech could be examined across time and against each other to observe emergent patterns. This study compares word length and specific word usage across a sample of state of the union addresses, thereby gaining possible insight into whether the modern rhetorical president is a result of an individual president and his efforts at change or whether that categorization may be a misnomer.

Past scholars who have examined presidential speech making have worked with inconsistent samples of presidential rhetoric. Tulis's (1987, 137-39) study samples nine hundred presidential documents that address various audiences from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, (3) Kernell (1997, 107-14) samples presidents since Hoover, and Theodore Lowi's (1985) study emphasizes the period subsequent to 1932. In "Presidents, Parties, and the Public: Evolving Patterns of Interaction, 1877-1929" (1998), Gerald Gamm and Renee Smith take the beneficial step of looking even further into the past to study presidential rhetoric and evolution and change. These scholars reflect on rhetoric both further into the past and dealing with specific audiences to gain insight into presidential rhetoric and function.

The state of the union address provides a particularly good foundation from which to examine the literature and claims regarding the traditional/modern presidency dichotomy. As mentioned above, its constitutionally mandated nature and its consistent audience (Congress and the people) make the speech an excellent source from which to analyze content. The examination of varied rhetorical sources in prior studies makes declarations and definitions difficult to ascribe across all presidents and presidencies. In fact, most studies use and examine executive rhetoric aimed at many different sources from Congress, to the president's party, to the public, to special audiences (Powell 1999). Presidents' innumerable speeches to varied audiences make generalization and proposition of a modern or traditional era difficult because most small speeches are geared specifically to a certain audience with a very specific message delivered. Studies sampling all presidential rhetoric therefore may be skewed in their findings as a result of these "specific" speeches. Based on these studies, scholars have attempted to define the father of the modern presidential rhetoric as well as the modern presidency's roots and development from the past (Ellis 1998).

Inaugural addresses may then be considered another logical and consistent medium from which to evaluate presidential rhetorical development. However, as discussed by Campbell and Jamieson (1990) and as I discovered through preliminary examinations, inaugurals present a different style of presidential rhetoric, dealing not with policy, but possessing a more ceremonial tone.

Inaugurals unify the country ... discuss shared values and standards rather than divisive issues ... establish the president's suitability by noting the awe in which they hold the office, the potential for power excesses, and their personal humility and responsibility in the face of this role.... They provide the president with a highly symbolic moment in which to address history as well as a nation. (Summary of Campbell and Jamieson 1990, as given in Smith and Smith 1994, 238) The inaugural, therefore, is a more ceremonial speech in which partisan position and issue proposition are absent, with reverence and general...

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