All the Presidents' Words: The Bully Pulpit and the Creation of the Virtual Presidency.
Carol Gelderman offers an examination of the process of speech writing from the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration through the first term of Bill Clinton. Employing a case study approach, the work attempts to illustrate the impact of separating speechwriters from presidents and how it "has changed the functions of the speeches--and, to some extent, the very nature of the presidency" (p. x).
Although Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to use the office as a bully pulpit, Gelderman regards his cousin Franklin as the prototype president for the modern rhetorical age. Because of his gift of teaching and his careful attention to the content of words, the four-term president was successful at changing the nation's mood from isolation to mobilized participant in world affairs. Several of Roosevelt's speeches over the period from 1937 to 1940 are analyzed to verify the latter achievement including the quarantine speech in October 1937 and the arsenal of democracy fireside chats at the end of December 1940.
The subsequent four chief executives--Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John E Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson--closely followed Roosevelt's collaborative method of choosing wordsmiths, but the procedure broke down in the Richard Nixon administration. What Nixon did was to expand the government public relations network by establishing the offices of communication, public liaison, and public affairs as well as by centralizing control over the information apparatus. This dual change meant that speechwriters no longer were at the forefront of the speech composition process.
Whereas Ronald Reagan and Clinton used the communications structure effectively in speechwriting tasks, other chief executives such as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush did not, according to Gelderman. The author credits Reagan's vision for America and the astuteness of his top assistants as the reason for speechwriting success, whereas Clinton's performance in the latter area is attributed to national tragedies and to his comebacks from political defeat and personal scandal.
On the other hand, Ford, Carter, and Bush "kept their writers at a distance and allowed them little involvement in policy" (p. 116). This chasm turned a potential resource into a liability. Employing selected speeches, Gelderman identifies several flaws in the speechwriting process of the aforementioned troika of chief executives--lack of clarity and simplicity in messages, problems emanating from rivalries among personnel responsible for speech construction, and rhetorical shortcomings of the latter presidents themselves.
In the book's epilogue, Gelderman decries the current trend in presidential speechwriting that overemphasizes the use of images, calling instead for a return to a language of ideas and the teaching function of the presidency.
All the Presidents' Words may be compared with another recent book on presidential speeches, Wayne O. Fields' Union of Words.(1) Fields, like Gelderman an English professor, also is concerned with the rhetorical style of messages, although the differences in the two texts outnumber the similarities. For example, whereas Gelderman limits her focus to the twentieth century, Fields examines the topic of presidential speechwriting over the entire span of American constitutional development. Furthermore, whereas Gelderman discounts the literary content of messages, Fields categorizes messages into several types and analyzes their literary content throughout. Finally, Fields' research is mostly concerned with presidents' individual contributions to speeches, whereas Gelderman covers a greater number of persons responsible for disseminating messages.
Gelderman's book does exhibit some weaknesses. First, the inference that a president's overall success may be discerned through scrutinizing a brief sample of speeches is unfair to both scholars and the nation's chief executives, primarily because it overrates the ills of the former while underestimating the ability of the latter. Second, by reserving full chapters for the speechwriting style of one or a few presidents while integrating discussion of several presidents into other chapters, the author presents inconsistent portrayals of the personnel and circumstances surrounding the presidents' speechwriting operations. Third, the epilogue is vastly incomplete in its proposals to eliminate "modern image-driven presidential speechifying" (p. 178). Whatever the strategy, bringing back Roosevelt is not an option.
The strength of Gelderman's study is its reminder that analyzing the process by which presidential speeches are constructed is as critical as evaluating the final product. But it likewise highlights the obligation of present research to accomplish both of those objectives.
(1.) Wayne O. Fields, Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence (New York: Free Press, 1996).
SAMUEL B. HOFF
Delaware State University