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Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents.

Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents. By Colleen J. Shogan. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006. 223 pp.

Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents has much to offer the contemporary student of rhetoric, presidential discourse, political science, and government regarding the ideas of phronesis, moralizing rhetoric, and the U.S. presidency. Colleen J. Shogan utilizes a content analysis of all presidential annual and inaugural addresses (through 2003) to help determine the 10 cases that she then examines using a rhetorical approach. She states that the purpose of the book "is to determine how moral and religious arguments collectively contribute to presidents attempting to fulfill the moral leadership role" and answers the question, "when does engaging in moralistic rhetoric enhance the presidents political position, and when does it hurt him?" (p. 9). The precise research question is, "When should presidents use rhetoric to emphasize the moral dimensions of their decisions and when should presidents refrain from moral justifications?" (p. 42). Ultimately, Shogan argues that presidential moral rhetoric stems from the political contexts in which a president operates rather than from his personality and leadership style and that morality appears to work best when it is used as a pragmatic strategy rather than springing from the character of the person or from an external authority.

After an introduction to the study, its general concepts, and research questions, the second chapter of Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents presents the results of the content analysis of the presidential annual and inaugural addresses: the percentage of religious or moral content by presidential address. A methodological appendix gives a useful overview of the categories and definitions employed in the content analysis portion of the study. The next three chapters turn to rhetorical analyses of the speeches of nine presidents and make up the bulk of the text. Chapter 3 considers "the politics of reinforcing moral rhetoric," examining George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Chapter 4, on "The Politics of Moral Restraint," covers speeches by Presidents Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy. Finally, Chapter 5 turns to "the politics of strategic moral rhetoric" in the presidential addresses of James Madison, James Buchanan, and Lyndon Johnson. Shogan concludes with a discussion of the increasing role of moral strategies; however, she mainly comments on George W. Bush's presidency and his use of "moralizing" rhetoric.

The combined content and rhetorical analyses present strong empirical arguments for Shogan's contentions about the appropriate use of moral and religious rhetoric. She points out the shortcomings of the initial quantitative approach and contends that such weaknesses are rectified by her use of rhetorical analyses based on phronesis. Her use of phronesis is admirable, but I contend that it does not go far enough.

Several questions come to mind while reading Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents. Is the volume about moral rhetoric or moralizing rhetoric? Shogan finds comfort in the moral adaptability of an LBJ but is concerned about the "inflexibility" of the moral systems of a Teddy Roosevelt or George W. Bush. For most voters, in contrast, the perceived "inflexibility" is considered moral fiber or an identifiable moral center. My concern with this book is that Shogan's underlying assumptions ultimately privilege a utilitarian strategy rather than a true moral commitment. Although the use of phronesis as a rhetorical point of analysis is good, it is truncated from the holistic ethos package-specifically the idea of the virtues. While the Aristotelian concept of ethos is somewhat adaptable to the community, the seven Greek virtues are more of an external, though not quite a Judeo-Christian, standard.

Readers of Shogan's volume might consider whether the moral rhetoric of American presidents should be analyzed by the "sweetness and light" of Greek philosophers as much as by the "fire and strength" of the Hebrew prophets and kings (James Darsey, The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America, 1997). Although the U.S. system has a strong connection to representative democracy and Roman plebiscitary, the American people still have a generalized ideal for their president that is closer to the Hebrew prophet. Shogan praises George Washington's moral character, but she is concerned when others follow his example. I contend that the American presidency is still about moral character, and too few have followed Washington's example. A president whose actions are limited by his moral rhetoric is one who is willing to limit his own power, acknowledging Lord Acton's contention that "[p]ower tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It is only when presidents recognize that there is a moral system greater than themselves that the American public will be willing to trust the political system again.

--Mark A. Gring

Texas Tech University
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Author:Gring, Mark A.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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