Speaking at Selma: presidential commemoration and Bill Clinton's problem of invention.

Author:Beasley, Vanessa B.
Position:SYMPOSIUM ON SCREENING THE PRESIDENCY - Essay
 
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On March 5, 2000, President William J. Clinton spoke in Selma, Alabama, to a large audience gathered to remember the thirty-fifth anniversary of one of the civil rights movement's most significant and violent episodes. In doing so, he became the first sitting U.S. president to speak at Edmund Pettus Bridge. In fact, to date he remains the only chief executive to speak at the site of "Bloody Sunday," the name given to the historic events of March 7, 1965, when Alabama state troopers brutally attacked U.S. citizens. There may be many reasons why Pettus Bridge has not been visited by presidents before or after Clinton, but one of them is surely the political awkwardness of remembrance when what is being remembered is state-sponsored violence and the deeply felt racism that invited it, quite literally in this case.

The painful events of 1965's Bloody Sunday were famously captured in now-iconic images of state troopers dressed in full uniform, eager to crack skulls with state-issued weapons, and later, hovering over defenseless victims. To the extent that such images are not merely distant memories in Alabama or elsewhere in the United States, the story of Selma can evoke both fresh and unhealed wounds related to racial inequality. Even if a presidential visit to Selma after 1965 might have had the capacity to signify some progress made, it might also have drawn attention to just how far the nation still had to go, making it easier, perhaps, for presidents to stay away. Indeed, a series of recent

exceptions may prove the rule. During the 2008 presidential election, when, for the first time in U.S. history, one of the most viable candidates was black, suddenly Selma became an important campaign stop. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke at Pettus Bridge in March, 2007, and John McCain appeared in Selma over a year later as part of his "American's Forgotten Cities" tour in April 2008.

Selma was no forgotten city to Bill Clinton, though, just as it was quite famously known to--and through--another Democratic president before him. President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) had not been physically present there in the spring of 1965, but his swift rhetorical attention to what happened on Pettus Bridge on March 7 is often associated with the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that summer. In years since, Selma--the actual place as well as its name as a signifier for the events of Bloody Sunday and their consequential aftermath--has been featured within nationalistic narratives about the United States' figurative march toward political and social equality. In his second inaugural address, for example, Barack Obama gestured toward the emancipatory telos of the country's mythic mission by referencing Selma, as well as two other locations, as evidence that "(w)e the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal--is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall" (Obama 2013). In this context, a reference to Selma can signal a belief in a particular version of U.S. nationalism, one imbued with an almost mystical inevitability: the idea that, somehow, the nation will ultimately reach its storied goal of providing "justice and liberty for all" of its citizens.

Likewise, for scholars of U.S. political discourse, Selma may also bring to mind another, closely related story. Just as the city's name can be shorthand for a narrative about how U.S. democracy is supposed to evolve, it can also bring to mind a theory about how presidential rhetoric is assumed to function. That is, LBJ's use of "the bully pulpit" as part of his administration's response to Selma has provided scholars with an example of the "rhetorical presidency," wherein a president's strategic rhetorical intervention in U.S. politics by way of public speech is among the factors contributing to legislative and/or policy success (Tulis 1988). Long after most of LBJ's individual words were forgotten, then, what has been remembered about Selma is that the president spoke out, in public, decrying the racial violence done there and offering a policy proposal as part of the solution. Even this simple memory, however, enables another mythic view--not one of the nation per se, but instead the power of its presidency to combat racial injustice.

This article begins with these two premises, that "Selma" is a hearty ideological signifier within U.S. nationalistic rhetoric and that LBJ's speech after Selma is a well-known exemplar of the "rhetorical presidency," to ask what President Clinton could possibly say there in 2000. Given that both the symbolic meaning of the setting and the standard for the efficacy of presidential speech on Selma had already been determined--and actually in many senses overdetermined--what were Clinton's options for rhetorical invention? What could be said at Selma? More to the point, what could be said there by a lame duck, recently impeached president whose own record on civil rights policy was less than progressive, in front of citizens gathered to remember dreams they all knew painfully well had been too long deferred?

Of course, we now know what could be said, or at least we know what Clinton said, and this article offers an analysis of both his predicament and his choices. My argument is that Clinton's response did not commemorate "Bloody Sunday" as much as it did a particular narrative about the U.S. presidency, including Clinton himself. Through this narrative, Clinton asked citizens to remember the presidency by positioning it at the center of two conflicting aspects of the Selma story: (1) a cultural imperative to situate the story of what happened at Selma in 1965 within a larger nationalist rhetoric about the presidency and justice and (2) an electoral need to invigorate situated memories of injustice in the South generally to activate citizens' imagination regarding the presidency in both the present and the future, including that coming November. Clinton was able to meet both goals, I will show, by both embracing and violating norms of presidential commemorative discourse more broadly understood. In other words, Clinton's solution was to say some of the right things at Selma, even as he also broke some of the rules.

To support these conclusions, this article moves in four parts. First, I explore the norms implicit in the prospect of presidential commemoration, associating them first with some larger cultural and rhetorical traditions before identifying two specific norms that are arguably more unique to the executive office, especially during recent years. Second, I offer an extended analysis of the larger context for Clinton's commemorative speech in Selma in 2000, with attention to both the constraints offered by Selma's history, its role within a larger national narrative, and, last, the present needs of those assembled at the anniversary celebration. Third, I present a reading of the speech itself, noting when and how Clinton adhered to traditional norms for commemoration while also increasingly violating them as the speech progressed. The fourth and concluding section offers a brief reflection about what Clinton's choices might reveal for scholars interested in what is at stake when presidents commemorate--and why, in fact, when and where presidents commemorate might matter more than we think.

Presidential Norms: What Happens When Presidents Commemorate

Public commemoration is one of the most ancient rhetorical acts in the Western tradition. Because it has also been studied for so long and within so many contexts, scholars have identified many of its most basic characteristics. I briefly review four of them here before moving to a more specific discussion of presidential commemorations. Throughout the section, however, the central question is this: what might anyone have expected Clinton to say on this particular anniversary at Selma?

First, Clinton could have been expected to engage in commemorative rhetoric that was conservative in the sociological sense, building and sustaining community for those assembled. As epideictic rhetoric, commemoration seeks to strengthen the relational attachments and/or perceived kinship within an audience. Paul Stob (2012) has noted that "epideictic aims to express a community's shared heritage (or the perception of such a heritage), rising above division [emphasis added]" (252). The privileging of "shared heritage" to preserve unity underscores how, even while the focus is ostensibly on past, commemorations are performed to meet a community's present needs. Celeste Condit (1985) states this goal more specifically: commemorative rhetoric seeks to "create a reassuring communal definition that can be shared by all active members" of the existing collective (292).

To construct such reassurances-as-remembrances, however, commemorations are creative to the point of drawing attention to their own rhetoricity. In Kirt Wilson's (2010) words, "(t)he speech acts that comprise commemoration are not concerned primarily with accuracy, but place a greater emphasis on emotional resonance and the utility of a narrative to warrant judgment or to structure social relationships" (459-60). A second characteristic is therefore that commemorative discourse is not expected to be a mere recitation of history, as if such a thing were possible. Quoting Wilson (2010) again, "[m]emory is not comprised simply of facts about the past, nor is it solely myth. It is, instead, a rhetorically negotiated commingling of history and commemoration, each form dictating slightly different exigencies" (461).

As Wilson's words suggest, a deep awareness of such discourse's rhetorical nature does not diminish the significance of its consequences. Indeed, scholars frequently view commemorative rhetoric as contributing to larger understandings of collective public memory, defined by John Bodnar (1993) as "a body of beliefs and ideas about...

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