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The Rhetorical Presidency Essay

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Jeffrey Tulis received his B.A. degree from Bates College, an M.A. from Brown, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.  In 1996, he received the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award.   He is currently writing a book on the problem of institutional deference, and he is co-editor of the Johns Hopkins Series in Constitutional Thought.  His thoughts in The Rhetorical Presidency are profound and worthy of discussion in any college setting.  His central claim concerns how the office of the president of the United States has changed from its conception created by our forefathers, especially in speech making.

Presidential speeches were given to Congress, for the most part, and if there were speeches made to the public they were usually of a supportive nature bolstering courage concerning whatever might be facing the country at the time.  It wasn’t until after the civil war that public speech making became routine for the president.    We will cover that change from what the presidency used to be, and what it has become today by reviewing Tulis’ book The Rhetorical Presidency.

            A political leader who gains power by appealing to people’s emotions and prejudices rather than their rationality is a fair description of where our understanding of the presidency is today.  It is interesting to note, however, that early legislation had been passed to thwart this very thing.  The fear, as Tulis explains it, of a demagogue during ‘normal’ times would be hard to control.  It would not be so terrible in war time, but if the president were to gain too much influence over the people under his leadership, it would be difficult to control the outcome.

To elicit people’s emotional and prejudicial biases on an issue is very close to what we are experiencing today.  Never has America been in such a turmoil concerning leadership as it is in this present era.  More nation-wide polls concerning the ‘ratings’ of the president have been taken during the last two presidents than in all the history of America.  If fact, if we are to believe these polls, Clinton, who was elected by the narrowest margin of any president, and Bush never scored very high in public opinion.

            The founders of our country feared a popular president for this very reason, and instigated legislation so that decision making on a nation-wide level could not be done by one man.  Tulis describes it thusly, “demagoguery, republicanism, independence of the executive, and [the] separation of powers[1]”.  On the same page he also states, “for most federalists, ‘demagogue’ and ‘popular leader’ were synonyms, and nearly all references to popular leaders in their writings are pejorative.”

  In one sense, I can see the dilemma, but sometimes, as Americans who can actually think for themselves, it would not be difficult to determine a correct course of action.  Our forefathers were not ignorant of this fact, and I believe there are still enough Americans with the same frame of mind to thwart an attempt to gain power by appealing to people’s emotions and prejudices.  A good example is Bush’s approval rating among the general public which wavers in the 30-40 percentile range.

            One of the issues Tulis addresses is the use of speeches to gain the approval of the people in a given project affecting the United States.  One such project was the advent of the railroad.  It was during this era that presidential speeches went from mainly speaking to Congress to addressing the general public.  He also points out that this increase of speeches to the public was the precursor for “popular leadership” and the very thing the forefathers were trying to avoid in the presidency of the United States. Many of these speeches were simple ‘thank you’ remarks at public appearances where other speakers were featured prominently[2].

            One exception Tulis draws attention to is during Andrew Johnson’s administration.  The impeachment charges he faced were partly due to his “popular rhetoric violating virtually all of the nineteenth-century norms encompassed by the doctrine[3]”.   Influenced by the time era, he was made the butt of jokes and political cartoons that mocked him as a weak man.  Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, however, is described by Tulis as a “series of rhetorical campaigns to secure passage of legislation to regulate the railroads[4]”.

He truly believed that what he was doing was in support of the founding fathers and was an answer to the problems Congress was facing at the time.   To Roosevelt, the railroad problem was a crisis that required the temporary aid of a popular leader.  He felt after this issue was resolved things would return to normal again, at least as far as the presidency was concerned.  However, the role of demagogue was moved to permanence by Wilson, who was convinced that this separation of powers was the main cause of deficient leadership in America, and until it was changed America would not become the super power she capable of being.

            Wilson believed “The need for more energy in the political system is greater than the risk incurred through the possibility of demagoguery[5]”.  Even though Wilson was the only president to receive a doctoral degree (political science), and in spite of his published work, Constitutional Government in the United States, many were, and are, convinced that America can once again return to the leadership that was the very foundation of our nation as prescribed by our forefathers.  The fact that he represented one thing to the people and something quite different to Congress cost him his credibility, and his wavering in rhetoric was what eventually caused his failure as a president.

            “The founder’s solution was to proscribe popular rhetoric always, hoping it would still be around if it was needed. Wilson’s solution was to prescribe it always, hoping that it would not be abused[6]”.  Abuse is the best description for it today.  Creating crises or pseudo-crises is what seems to be the norm for our political leaders.  Some still argue whether or not there were actually weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and further, many fear where this type of thinking will lead.

As we learned from Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” rhetoric can get the nation into trouble.  When he declared “war” on poverty, he did so as a popular appeal to help those less fortunate people who were in desperate need of help.  It was the approach to the solution that caused it to fail.  Instead of addressing Congress with the need, and allowing them to produce legislation to support the idea, he made his appeal to the people, who were sympathetic to his cause, but because the proper channels were not followed, his idea was doomed to failure.

            Tulis ends his book with the concluding thoughts of reeducating Americans to the real purpose behind the office of presidency, and urges people to understand that a rhetorical president in ‘normal’ times is too risky for a balanced democracy.  His suggestions concerning the office of the president returning to what the forefathers intended is the strongest message he offers.  How America is going to do this, however, is quite another story.  Is the office of the President dangerously close to becoming a dictatorship?  I doubt it, but it is quite clear, as Tulis points out, that too much media attention leaves America with the feeling that the office of the President is becoming more like that of a king.


Tulis, Jeffrey K. 1987  The Rhetorical Presidency.

 Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University                    Press.

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