Considering Presidential Rhetoric as a Window Into National Identity:

A Review of Defining Americans


Friday, Oct. 29, 2004
G.J. Russello, Considering Presidential Rhetoric as a Window Into National Identity: A Review of Defining Americans (University Press of Kansas, 2004)

In a democracy, political speech is a way to convey common ideals. Unlike in an aristocracy, where power is reserved for an elite, or in countries like the former Afghanistan that were until recently ruled by a theocratic cabal, citizens in a democracy expect their leaders to speak to them as equal participants in the political process.

The role of political language is especially important in the United States, where debates over the nation's identity have been a feature of political life since the founding. Because Americans do not share a common religious or ethnic heritage, discussion and argument have been a primary means that Americans have expressed their self-understanding.

In her new book, Defining Americans, Mary Stuckey examines the language of a number of presidents, to see how each expressed, in his rhetoric, the national self-understanding at the time. Stuckey, who teaches political science at Georgia State University, selects a number of presidents to illustrate her thesis that "presidents must unite contemporaneous occasions wit appropriate traditions and innovations so that enough of us will continue to see ourselves - and sometimes maybe even our better selves - reflected in the national mirror of public discourse."

There are chapters on Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR. In addition, one chapter is devoted to Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, each of whom served a single term during the 1850s. Surprisingly, Stuckey also devotes chapters to Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush - though neither is known for his mastery of political language.

Stuckey uses these case studies to stress how presidents have had to navigate changing interpretations of our identity as a nation. Presidents, Stuckey contends, must acknowledge the fact of Americans' "different sets of identities" -- yet they are also required to reduce those details into one "overarching identity." She adds that, unfortunately, through much of the nation's history, that overarching identity has too often tended to neglect true differences, in the name of an idealized "America."

Stuckey's work is worthwhile - but, as I will explain, its value is limited by an ideological bent that has led to selective scholarship.

Presidential Rhetoric: Significant In Shaping National Identity

Theodore Roosevelt, himself no stranger to colorful rhetoric, once called the presidency the bully pulpit. Ever since Washington, presidents have been keenly aware of their role in shaping the country's identity - especially through the words they choose. Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln crafted language to both express ideals, and to put them into action.

More recently, both FDR and Ronald Reagan succeeded in no small part because of their rhetorical abilities. FDR, for his part, saw America through the Great Depression of the 1930s with his "fireside chats." And the critic Russell Kirk credited not only Reagan's popularity, but his victory to how his political rhetoric "spoke to American minds" and gave them hope after the malaise of the Carter years.

In the modern age of mass media and 24-hour coverage, the role of the president in uniting the nation has become even more elevated. During events such as the 1986 Challenger disaster or the September 11, 2001 attacks, the nation waits anxiously for the president to speak.

Concerns for Balance and the Nature of Citizenship

Stuckey's analysis of presidential rhetoric is centered on the themes of balance and exclusion - themes that, she explains, recur throughout our history.

Early presidents were concerned with balancing the claims of various groups, such as slaveholders or Western settlers, in the name of keeping the country united. Jackson is representative of this concern, as he focused on the ownership of land as demonstrative of good citizenship. This enabled Jackson to exclude those - especially Native Americans, but also others such as slaves and persons without property - from the model of the ideal American citizen. As Stuckey notes, this rhetorical style reflected and furthered the nation's disastrous policy toward native peoples.

After the conquest of the West, the center of presidential rhetoric changed, according to Stuckey. Now the challenge was to define citizenship: Since Native Americans (and, after the Civil War, slaves), could not be considered totally "Other," presidents searched for new ways to define the "typical" American, by choosing "superior" virtues or characteristics.

Cleveland used the model of business in his rhetoric, invoking citizens as workers and seeking to balance the claims of capital and labor in the quickly industrializing nation. Jacksonian dreams of the frontier had faded, and Cleveland had to contend with new social issues that he sought to control and define through his speeches. Stuckey focuses on two particular issues: Cleveland's treatment of Chinese immigrant workers and of the native Mormon Church -- each of which challenged American identity in important ways.

Although not generally considered the most impressive of executives, Cleveland - according to Stuckey - deserves praise for the stress he placed on particular values "industriousness, cooperation, civic responsibility, fidelity to family and nation." These values cut across race and class, and were achievable by all.

In contrast, Stuckey treats Eisenhower more harshly -- despite his genuine efforts at inclusion, and such acts as his calling the National Guard to enforce desegregation in Arkansas in 1957. The overriding threat of Communism led Eisenhower, Stuckey argues, to gloss over real differences among groups in order to present a united American front. As a result, she concludes, many "who lived nondomesticated lives in the 1950s … faced lives far more difficult and sometimes far more dangerous than they might otherwise have been."

In Defining Americans, Ideology Interferes With Good Scholarship

Stuckey brings to light some important themes of presidential rhetoric. For example, the notion of the "pioneer" has been an enduring image in presidential language. However, the way Jackson invoked the explorers of the West was different from the way, say, FDR did -- and these varied expressions tell us something about the evolution of the national character.

Unfortunately, Stuckey's work does not really address the complexities of the problem she has tackled - for her focus remains single-mindedly on certain kinds of exclusion and inclusion. Others simply do not merit much attention.

Therefore, there is much on rhetoric that excludes women and sexual and racial minorities, but almost nothing on religious groups. This is surprising, especially as Stuckey claims her selection of excluded groups "is a product of the data, and not of a decision made according to an abstract rule."

An entire political party -- the Know-Nothings -- was established to exclude Catholics from public life. Anti-Catholic themes and imagery are one of the few true constants in American political speech. Yet this tradition is almost completely absent from Stuckey's account.

There are other problems with the account, as well. If a national problem is big, like race, Stuckey typically opines that it is so big as to be invisible - so that presidents could ignore it if they chose. But if, on the other hand, a problem is too small, Stuckey typically claims it could have been erased by the dominant political group of which a given president was a representative. Either way, Stuckey is able to advance her own ideological interpretation without significant obstacles. She pretends that presidents throughout history have been free to ignore large problems, and solve smaller ones. But that simply hasn't been the case: Even a president's reach, and options, are limited. And some problems are so major, they simply must be confronted.

Especially in an election year, attention to presidential language is a basic part of the public conversation. How an actual or would-be president chooses to express an understanding of American identity has political and social implications far beyond the particular issues.

Stuckey has provided some guideposts on what to look for. But ultimately, Defining Americans falls short of its own goal of providing an accurate historical picture of Presidential rhetoric. And ironically, that is due to Stuckey's own use of rhetorically charged ideas - which, in the end, both frame and limit her analysis.

Gerald J. Russello lives in Brooklyn.