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Presidential inaugural addresses and American political culture.

In an important essay on American political culture, J. David Greenstone took his thesis from a sermon by Theodore Parker, the prominent nineteenth-century transcendentalist minister, entitled, "A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity." Greenstone's thesis was that just as Parker could identify some features of Christianity that always had been and presumbly always would be part of Christianity, he could identify some features of American politics that enjoyed a similar status. This approach, he argued, provided a good way of thinking about the elusive concept of political culture.(1)

Taking its cue from Parker and Greenstone, this study uses the inaugural addresses of the presidents of the United States to identify the "permanent" in American politics. It considers the more prominent, recurrent themes in the tradition formed by those addresses as definitive of the more permanent, cultural features of American politics. Moreover, it argues that the function of inaugural addresses is precisely to express those cultural features of American politics, not, as political scientists and others have long noted, such transient features of American politics as the incoming president's policy agenda.(2)

This argument can be attacked from three directions. One critique would be to deny that inaugural addresses share any common themes.(3) For example, the fact that all inaugural addresses have invoked a providential supreme being might be dismissed by stating the obvious: different presidents have meant different things by invoking such a being. All these invocations do, however, share a common meaning. The incoming president invokes a supreme being to identify with his audience by acknowledging their common humanity. He is confessing that even as he assumes the highest office in the land he shares with the members of his audience all the limitations of human nature. He is also confessing that he can not fulfill the stringent duties of his new office without the assistance of a power beyond his, or any other person's, control. What, then, is "transient" in inaugural addresses is the incoming president's personal conception of that higher power; what is "permanent" is his recognition of the limits of his all-too-human powers.

Inaugural addresses, though, could share some common themes without those themes being anchored in the broader culture. The second critique, thus, would be to deny that inaugural themes are cultural themes. Inaugural addresses may be such ritualistic performances that their meaning is endogenous to the ritual. Somewhat differently stated, this counterargument is that inaugural addresses form a rhetorical tradition whose rules are generated by the specific functions of the genre.(4) It is beyond the scope of this study to respond fully to such an argument. I can merely suggest how the common themes of inaugural addresses do reflect recurrent themes in American politics. I would also suggest that only insofar as communication researchers admit that the generic components of inaugural addresses are anchored in the broader culture can they adequately explain why those components work and why they take the particular form they do.(5) A more cultural approach to inaugural addresses supplies a ready logic for answering those questions. Through his inaugural address, the incoming president seeks to identify with his audience by articulating its deep-seated, cultural beliefs and reassuring his fellow citizens that he, indeed, is their new president. In Dwight D. Eisenhower's felicitous words, "I, too, am witness today; testifying in your name to the principles and purposes to which we, as a people, are pledged."(6)

The third critique is that the broader cultural themes expressed in inaugural addresses lack much political significance, at least in terms of predicting the specific policies the president or nation will subsequently follow.(7) It is true that inaugural addresses do not have much significance in this sense. They are ritualistic performances; ill-suited to gauging the transient elements of American public policy. Yet, they are also cultural performances; they operate on a general level to outline the more permanent aspects of American public policy that constrain the future behavior of the president,and nation. For example, the deep-seated, cultural belief that Americans are a chosen people with a special mission in history has clearly affected American foreign policy.(8) Even if William McKinley's inaugural statement that the nation's "glorious history" has "advanced the cause of freedom throughout the world"(9) would not predict that the United States would declare war on Spain within a year's time, it did express a belief that predisposed the nation to do so.(10)

Inaugural addresses are remarkably similar to each other, both in content and language.(11) The same general themes are voiced again and again; the same verbal formulas are repeated over and over. This pattern persists regardless of the partisan affiliation of the incoming president or a host of other factors that differentiate new presidents from one another. To stress this remarkable similarity is not to stress something that is merely formulaic. Nor is it to deny the transient in inaugural addresses. It, rather, is to suggest how the permanent in those addresses provides a window onto American political culture.

Inaugural Themes

A content analysis of fifty-two inaugural addresses found that those addresses prominently feature eleven themes.(12) The eleven inaugural themes are: (1) civic virtue; (2) nonpartisanship; (3) national unity; (4) general policy principles; (5) cooperation with Congress; (6) popular support; (7) a providential supreme being; (8) the American mission; (9) political continuity; (10) the president's role as defender of the Constitution and union; and (11) federalism. Each of these themes is addressed in at least 44 percent of the inaugurals, with a range from 44 percent (theme 10) to 100 percent (theme 7)(13) (see Table One). On average, individual inaugurals address seven of the themes, with a range from two (Abraham Lincoln's second) to a perfect eleven (Thomas Jefferson's first as wen as the inaugural addresses of John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren). The outliers tend to be wartime inaugurals; beside Lincoln's second, James Madison's second and Franklin Roosevelt's fourth. The other lowest-ranking inaugural, Ulysses S. Grant's first, merges into the "wartime inaugural" category because of its Reconstruction setting.(14) In discussing each of the eleven inaugural themes, I also call attention to any secular trends in how they were (or were not) expressed.

TABLE 1 Content Analysis of Inaugural Addresses
 Inaugural Theme

President 1 2 3 4 5 6

Washington I - x x - x -
Washington II (not coded)
John Adams x x - x - x
Jefferson I x x x x x x
Jefferson II x x x x x x
Madison I x - - x x x
Madison II x - - - - x
Monroe I x - x x x -
Monroe II x x x x x x
John Quincy Adams x x x x x x
Jackson I - - - x x x
Jackson II x - x x - -
Van Buren x x x x x x
William Henry Harrison x x x x x x
Polk x x x x x -
Taylor x - - x x -
Pierce - x x x x x
Buchanan x - x x - x
Lincoln I x - x - - x
Lincoln II - - - - - -
Grant I x - - x - -
Grant II - - - x x x
Hayes x x - x x x
Garfield x x x x x x
Cleveland I x x - x - x
Benjamin Harrison x x x x - x
Cleveland II x x - x x -
McKinley I x x x x x x
McKinley II x x x - x x
Theodore Roosevelt x - - - - -
William Howard Taft - - - x x x
Woodrow Wilson I x x - x - x
Woodrow Wilson II x x x x - x
Warren Harding x - - - - x
Coolidge x x x x x -
Herbert Hoover x x - x - x
Franklin Roosevelt I x - x x x x
Franklin Roosevelt II x - x - - x
Franklin Roosevelt III x - - - - -
Franklin Roosevelt IV x - - - - -
Harry Truman x - - x - x
Dwight Eisenhower I x x - x x x
Dwight Eisenhower II x - - x - -
John Kennedy x x - x - x
Lyndon Johnson x - x x - x
Richard Nixon I x - x - - x
Richard Nixon II x - - - - x
Jimmy Carter x - x x - x
Ronald Reagan I x - x x - x
Ronald Reagan II x x x x - x
George Bush x x x - x x
Bill Clinton I x - x - x x
Bill Clinton II x x x x x x
 Totals 46 26 29 38 26 38
 Percentages 88 50 56 73 50 73

 Inaugural Theme

President 7 8 9 10 11 Total

Washington I x x - - - 5
Washington II
John Adams x x - x x 8
Jefferson I x x x x x 11
Jefferson II x x - - x 9
Madison I x - - x x 7
Madison II x - - - - 3
Monroe I x x x x x 9
Monroe II x x - - x 9
John Quincy Adams x x x x x 11
Jackson I x - - x x 6
Jackson II x x - x x 7
Van Buren x x x x x 11
William Henry Harrison x x - - x 9
Polk x x x x x 10
Taylor x - x x - 6
Pierce x x x x x 10
Buchanan x x x x x 9
Lincoln I x - x x x 7
Lincoln II x - - x - 2
Grant I x - - - - 3
Grant II - x - - - 4
Hayes x - x - x 8
Garfield x x x - x 10
Cleveland I x x x x x 9
Benjamin Harrison x - x x - 8
Cleveland II x - x x x 8
McKinley I x x x x - 10
McKinley II x x x x - 9
Theodore Roosevelt x x x - - 4
William Howard Taft x - - x x 6
Woodrow Wilson I x x x - - 7
Woodrow Wilson II x x x - - 8
Warren Harding x x x - - 5
Coolidge x x x x x 10
Herbert Hoover x x x x x 9
Franklin Roosevelt I x - x - - 7
Franklin Roosevelt II x x x - - 6
Franklin Roosevelt III x x x - - 4
Franklin Roosevelt IV x x - - - 3
Harry Truman x x x - - 6
Dwight Eisenhower I x x x - - 8
Dwight Eisenhower II x x x - - 5
John Kennedy x x x - - 7
Lyndon Johnson x x x - - 7
Richard Nixon I x x x x - 7
Richard Nixon II x x - - - 4
Jimmy Carter x x x - - 7
Ronald Reagan I x x x - x 8
Ronald Reagan II x x x - x 9
George Bush x x x - - 8
Bill Clinton I x x x - - 7
Bill Clinton II x x x - - 9
 Totals 52 40 37 23 24 379
 Percentages 100 77 71 44 46 66

Key: 1 = civic virtue; 2 = nonpartisanship; 3 = national unity; 4 = general policy principles; 5 = cooperation with Congress; 6 = popular support; 7 = a providential supreme being; 8 = the American mission; 9 = political continuity; 10 = defender of the Constitution and union; 11 = federalism.

Civic Virtue

One of the most prominent inaugural themes is the theme of civic virtue. Almost every inaugural address (88 percent) calls on the American people to make sacrifices for some greater good. Perhaps the most famous of all these invocations of civic virtue is John F. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."(15) The question is invariably rhetorical. The new president professes confidence that the American people will, as they always have in the past, answer his call. Thus, in 1897, McKinley found it "inspiring" that "no great emergency in the one hundred and eight years of our eventful national life has ever arisen that has not been met with wisdom and courage by the American people, with fidelity to their best interests and highest destiny, and to the honor of the American name."(16)

Sometimes, though, the incoming president's confidence appears somewhat shaken, and his inaugural address assumes the form of a jeremiad. Woodrow Wilson's first inaugural admonishes the American people that "[t]here has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great. Our thought has been `Let every man look out for himself, let every generation look out for itself.'" Yet, true to the jeremiad form, Wilson offers the reassurance that "[w]e have come now to the sober second thought. The scales of heedlessness have fallen from our eyes. We have made up our minds to square every process of our national life again with the standards we so proudly set up at the beginning and have always carried at our hearts."(17)

The "civic virtue" theme has gained new prominence in the study of American history through the scholarship of the republican revisionists.(18) They, however, tend to view this and other republican themes as dying out in the early republic, by the 1830s at the latest. This clearly has not been the case in inaugural addresses. In 1857, James Buchanan voiced traditional republican wisdom when he said, "Public virtue is the vital spirit of republics."(19) An even more unlikely source is Warren G. Harding, who in 1921 said, "The supreme inspiration is the common weal."(20) Finally, George Bush, in 1989, colloquialized that "duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in" are "timeless" ideas.(21)


Exactly half of the inaugural addresses warn against the dangers of political parties. Only Calvin Coolidge presented a generally positive view of parties, though even he cautioned that "[t]here is no salvation in a narrow and bigoted partisanship."(22) Interestingly, Coolidge's immediate successor, Herbert Hoover, echoed his justification of party government but then quickly added: "But the government is that of the whole people; the party is the instrument through which policies are determined and men chosen to bring them into being. The animosities of elections should have no place in our Government, for government must concern itself alone with the common weal."(23) A diverse set of presidents--James K. Polk, Rutherford B. Hayes, McKinley, Wilson, and Kennedy--expressed similar sentiments in trying to explain to the American people how the electoral role of political parties does not belle a deeper nonpartisanship. In Kennedy's words, "we observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom."(24)

Again, republican scholarship stresses the prominence of this inaugural theme, and, again, it sees that prominence as waning in the early republic.(25) The anti-party theme has become less prominent within the inaugural tradition since George Washington expressed confidence that no "party animosities" would "misdirect" the deliberations of the first Congress,(26) and Jefferson declared that "[w]e are all Republicans; we are all Federalists" after the nation's first change of party government.(27) The prominence of this theme, however, has undergone a series of declines and resurgences within the inaugural tradition. The most recent and marked dip occurred after Hoover. Nevertheless, three of the four most recent inaugurals called attention to this theme.(28) One might, in fact, have expected the anti-party theme to have become more, not less, prominent in twentieth-century inaugurals because of the weakening of the political parties and the decline in party voting that have allegedly occurred in the United States from their zenith in the late nineteenth century.(29) This theme, though, is best viewed not as a blanket condemnation of party behavior but as a cultural constraint on party behavior that may be invoked precisely when it seems strongest. Facing a divided government, Clinton's 1997 admonition was against "the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship."(30)

National Unity

The theme of national unity is closely related to the theme of nonpartisanship, for partisanship is one of the things unity must overcome. It must, of course, overcome other things. In his first inaugural, Reagan provided a checklist: "Our concern ... knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines."(31) The power of this theme lies precisely in the fact that few new presidents mention the nation's troublesome ethnic and racial divisions, except when they can hardly avoid it, as during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. While many new presidents do mention sectional and party divisions as threats to national unity, they almost always do so only to discount the nature of those threats.

The unity theme has had a checkered career, or, rather, two checkered careers, within the inaugural tradition. The first career concerns the ebb and flow of what stands in the way of unity. This career has had seven distinct stages: (1) celebrations of how Americans have kept the evils of party at bay (Washington to John Quincy Adams); (2) warnings against sectionalism as a growing threat to unity or, specifically, union, yet expressions of confidence that the union is still first in the hearts of most Americans (Andrew Jackson II to Lincoln I); (3) a lapse for Civil War and Reconstruction, when presumably sectionalism could not be denied (Lincoln II to Hayes); (4) congratulations that sectionalism has been overcome (James Garfield to McKinley II); (5) reassurances that early twentiethcentury threats to unity, such as World War I (Wilson II) and the Great Depression (Franklin Roosevelt I-II), will be overcome; (6) another lapse for World War II and the Cold War, when external threats to national existence seemed much greater than internal ones (Franklin Roosevelt III to Kennedy); and (7) a resurgence of party as a threat to unity (Reagan to Clinton II). The second career concerns how hard individual presidents have pushed the unity theme. Here, a definite relaxation has occurred. James Monroe's "Discord does not belong to our system"(32) is a far cry from Jimmy Carter's "We have built unity with a respect for diversity."(33) Still, despite these trends, more than half of the inaugural addresses (56 percent) insist that the American people are one people and that their exceptional unity will eventually subdue whatever threatens it.

The thesis that the American people are an exceptionally unified people is the basic premise of the consensus school of American history, most brilliantly expounded by Louis Hartz.(34) Hartz's analysis has not gone uncontested.(35) Yet, even in this age of multicultural diversity, I strongly suspect Bill Clinton was speaking for his audience when he professed "the faith that our nation can summon from its myriad diversity the deepest measure of unity."(36)

General Policy Principles

At some point in their inaugural addresses, nearly three-fourths of incoming presidents (73 percent) provide some indication of the policies they propose to follow in office. Some, of course, are more specific than others. William Howard Taft stands out for detailing, in over thirteen pages of text, the policies he proposes to follow.(37) In most cases, though, the new presidents' policy proposals are so general that it is difficult to determine not only what they are proposing to do but even if they are proposing to do anything. Fortunately, they often explicitly tell their audiences when they are proposing to do something and that, at least for now, they are not proposing anything specific to do. They also often say they are proceeding in this manner because their predecessors did so or because it seems appropriate to the occasion. In 1877, Hayes nicely outlined the contours of this inaugural theme.

Called to the duties of this great trust, I proceed, in

compliance with usage, to announce some of the leading principles,

on the subjects that now chiefly engage the public attention, by

which it is my desire to be guided in the discharge of those duties.

I shall not undertake to lay down irrevocably principles or measures

of administration, but rather to speak of the motives which should animate

us, and to suggest certain important ends to be attained in accordance

with our institutions and essential to the welfare of our country.(38)

A twentieth-century variant on this theme heightens the lack of specificity. This variant is to articulate what the incoming president considers the leading principles of the American people, not merely of his new administration. As Harry S Truman put it, "[i]t is fitting, therefore, that we take this occasion to proclaim to the world the essential principles of the faith by which we live."(39) This variant heightens the consensual, nonpartisan nature of the policy theme. It tends to make the new president's policy "proposals" even more abstract and, hence, even less controversial. This tendency, however, is not confined to inaugural addresses. An important corollary to Hartz's consensus view is that American political practices, taken as a whole, focus attention on relatively noncontroversial, technical issues of policy management and slide over more controversial, distributive issues.(40)

Cooperation with Congress

This is the first of three inaugural themes that can be lumped together under the heading of "presidential humility." The import of the cooperation with Congress theme, as well as the popular support and supreme being themes, is that the president needs help in governing the nation (though one wonders why, given how virtuous and unified the American people seem to be). Indeed, at least during the nineteenth century, these themes were explicitly linked as presidents from Madison to Grover Cleveland asked for the support of (among others) Congress, the American people, and God in governing the nation. In John Quincy Adams's words,

To the guidance of the legislative councils, to the assistance of the

executive and subordinate departments, to the friendly cooperation of

the respective State governments, to the candid and liberal support

of the people so far as it may be deserved by honest industry and

zeal, I shall look for whatever success may attend my public service;

and knowing that "except the Lord keep the city the watchman waketh

but in vain," with fervent supplications for His favor, to His

overruling providence I commit with humble and fearless confidence my

own fate and the future destinies of my country.(41)

After Cleveland, this formula was broken and then, starting with Wilson, the cooperation with Congress theme receded in prominence without the popular support and supreme being themes doing so. Twenty of the first thirty inaugurals refer to the cooperation with Congress theme but only six of the last twenty-two inaugurals refer to it (for a total of 50 percent). This trend coincides with the "rise" of the imperial and rhetorical presidencies.(42) Yet, only in Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural is there the positive suggestion of a president governing without Congress, and even in that case the suggestion was a conditional one.(43) The bulk of the twentieth-century inaugurals merely ignore Congress. While this finding does not disprove a fundamental, twentieth-century change in presidential politics, it does suggest the trend away from mentioning Congress in inaugural addresses may simply lie in the technological improvements that have made the American people, and not Congress, the primary audience of those addresses.(44)

Interestingly, it was a mid-nineteenth-century president who sounded the alarm against the imperial presidency. William Henry Harrison's motives may have been highly partisan and his interpretation of his own constitutional powers may have been unduly restrictive, but his underlying theme was not open to dispute: the Constitution mandates cooperation between the president and Congress. Harrison also called attention to the broader cultural message of this inaugural theme: the president of the United States is not a king.(45) Though that message probably required less repetition over time, Coolidge still felt the need to repeat it in 1925.

The essence of a republic is representative government. Our Congress

represents the people and the States. In all legislative affairs it

is the natural collaborator with the President. In spite of all the

criticism which often falls to its lot, I do not hesitate to say

that there is no more independent and effective legislative body in

the world. It is, and should be, jealous of its prerogative. I

welcome its cooperation, and expect to share with it not only the

responsibility, but the credit, for our common effort to secure

beneficial legislation.(46)

Popular Support

The second rung of the presidential humility ladder is the plea for popular support. Seventy-three percent of incoming presidents specifically ask the American people for their assistance in governing the nation.

This sixth inaugural theme is also closely related to three other inaugural themes. A people that is helpful to new presidents is ipso facto a people that is virtuous, nonpartisan, and unified. McKinley would "shrink from the duties this day assumed if I did not feel that in their performance I should have the co-operation of the wise and patriotic men of all parties"(47) while Wilson summons "all honest men, all patriotic, all forward-looking men, to my side. God helping me, I will not fall them, if they will but counsel and sustain me!"(48)

This theme, however, has its own specific cultural meaning. It stresses that the federal government is a government of the people. Through this theme, the president acknowledges, in yet another way, that he is not a king. He is a popularly elected head of state. He is not asking for the support of the American people to rule over them but to be an efficient instrument of their desires. At least rhetorically, new presidents willingly place themselves within a democratic culture. Indeed, they often proceed to lecture their audiences on what exactly that culture entails. As Monroe explained in 1821,

In this great nation there is but one order, that of the people, whose power,

by a peculiarly happy improvement of the representative principle is

transferred from them without impairing in the slightest degree their

sovereignty, to bodies of their own creation, and to persons elected by

themselves in the full extent necessary for all the purposes of free,

enlightened, and efficient government. The whole system is elective, the

complete sovereignty being in the people, and every officer and department

deriving his authority from and being responsible to them for his


Many years later, Reagan stated it much more succinctly: "Our Government has no power except that granted it by the people."(50)

The idea that the United States embodies the democratic ethos is, of course, a very old idea, going back at least to Tocqueville. Inaugural addresses, though, have presented progressively purer versions of that ethos. In the early republic, incoming presidents tended to speak in the first-person singular voice and personally ask the American people to help them govern the nation. For instance, Madison, at the end of his first inaugural, declared that "the source to which I look for the aids which alone can supply my deficiencies is in the well-tried intelligence and virtue of my fellow citizens."(51) Currently, incoming presidents tend to speak in the first-person plural voice and declare, as Truman did, that "[t]he tasks we face are difficult, and we can accomplish them only if we work together."(52) This shift serves to heighten presidential humility or, one might now say, self-effacement. It is consistent with recent historical research stressing that the nation's democratic culture was not born all at once, like Athena out of Zeus's head, but that it had to struggle to replace an older, more aristocratic republican culture.(53) One, however, should not exaggerate the dimensions of this shift.(54) Even Bush's inaugural, which is a model of presidential self-effacement, tempers that message. In a particularly telling moment during his inaugural address, Bush claimed that "[n]o President, no government, can teach us to remember what is best in what we are. But if the man you have chosen to lead this government can help make a difference ... then he must."(55)

A Providential Supreme Being

The final rung of the presidential humility ladder is the plea for divine assistance in governing the nation. As suggested above, the primary purpose behind this inaugural theme is not for the new president to profess belief in a supreme being or in any particular supreme being, but rather for him to place himself on a level with other actors within the nation's democratic culture. Like the prior two themes, this theme demonstrates that the new president is comfortable with the fact that he has limited powers and is not a king with divine rights. As he was wont to do, Bush put it bluntly: "A president is neither prince nor pope."(56)

While all incoming presidents have referred to a supreme being in their inaugural addresses, they have used a wide variety of names to refer to that being. Washington alone referred to "that Almighty Being"; "the Great Author of every public and private good"; "the Invisible Hand"; a "providential agency"; "Heaven"; and "the benign Parent of the Human Race."(57) There, of course, has been a trend. Early presidents shied away from using the Christian designation for a supreme being, instead preferring the deistic language favored by Washington. Monroe was the first president to use the word "God" in an inaugural address,(58) although John Adams had earlier alluded to the United States as a Christian nation.(59) After Monroe, it was another thirty years before the next inaugural usage of "God." Starting with Franklin Pierce, however, the use of "God" became the norm; indeed, from Garfield to Clinton, Theodore Roosevelt was the only president not to use "God" in his inaugural address. Yet, during this same time span, no president explictly referred to Christianity in his inaugural address.(60)

The import of this trend is, therefore, mixed. We might speculate that the early presidents were more sensitive to the separation of church and state, in part because to them it was still an experiment. It is also probably true that some of the early presidents were in fact deists.(61) Later presidents, in contrast, were probably more sensitive to the nation's growing non-Christian population. The broader point, though, is that whether or not an individual president used the words "God" or "Christianity" in his inaugural address does not tell us much, if anything, about his personal religious beliefs. Such statements are cultural, not personal, and their significance is primarily political, not religious.

This is not to say that this inaugural theme lacks specific religious meaning. Through this theme, the incoming president does affirm that: (1) there is a supreme being; (2) who is active in history; and (3) to whom one can appeal (even pray) for assistance. Taken together, however, those three beliefs do not seem substantial enough to constitute a civil religion, much less a peculiarly Christian one.(62) One indication of this is the way the belief in a divine providence has been elaborated within the inaugural tradition. New president after new president has proclaimed Americans a chosen people, not to spread the blessings of a particular form of religion around the world, but to spread the blessings of a particular form of government.

The American Mission

More than three-fourths of the inaugural addresses (77 percent) refer to the nation's special mission in history to spread the blessings of popular government around the world. None has stated it more eloquently than the first. In Washington's words, "the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."(63)

The secondary literature on the American mission is profuse and all the evidence suggests most Americans believe their nation is "the world's best hope,"(64) and has "meaning beyond itself."(65) Over the years, however, the nature of the mission has changed. Where eighteenth- and nineteenth-century presidents emphasized that the nation must lead by example, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, incoming presidents have increasingly emphasized that the American mission requires more active involvement in world affairs. By the end of World War II, this emphasis had shifted even more, so that the mission now requires positively promoting democracy around the world.(66)

This shift in emphasis, though, has been tempered by the claim that the United States remains a nonimperialistic nation. The portrait of the United States that emerges from twentieth-century inaugurals is of a nation that fights for peace, respects the rights and cultures of other nations, and has been forced to play a more active international role by circumstances beyond its control. The need for recent presidents to reassure the world, as well as their fellow citizens, that the nation's intentions are nonimperialistic is undoubtedly one of the reasons they have drawn back from the religious connotations of this inaugural theme and stopped referring to Americans as a chosen people.(67) Most recent presidents almost seem to visibly pine for the simpler days when the nation could merely lead by example. Rhetorically and emotionally, the "new" American mission is strongly linked to the "old." On the eve of the Americanization of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Baines Johnson poignantly stated the point and counterpoint of this theme.

The American covenant called on us to help show the way for the liberation of

man.... Change has brought new meaning to that old mission.... If

American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled in countries we

barely know, that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and of

our enduring covenant.(68)

Political Continuity

In the face of a world in flux, incoming presidents stress the nation's extraordinary political continuity. Stable popular government is part of the American mission. According to new presidents, that part of the mission has also been very successful. As Wilson observed in 1913, "[w]e have built up, moreover, a great system of government, which has stood through a long age as in many respects a model for those who seek to set liberty upon foundations that will endure against fortuitous change, against storm and accident."(69) Seventy-one percent of the inaugural addresses express this theme. Not surprisingly, most of the exceptions occurred early in the nation's political history, when there was less continuity over which to marvel. Only four of the first thirteen inaugurals express this theme; only six of the remaining thirty-nine do not.

One way new presidents express the continuity theme is to reflect on how they are carrying on a long-standing tradition simply by taking the oath of office and delivering an inaugural address. Conscious recognition of an inaugural tradition began with John Quincy Adams in 1825.(70) Many new presidents and inaugural addresses later, Bush expounded on the broader meaning of this tradition.

I have just repeated word for word the oath taken by George

Washington 200 years ago, and the Bible on which I placed my hand is the

Bible on which he placed his. It is night that the memory of Washington be

with us today, not only because this is our Bicentennial Inauguration, but

because Washington remains the Father of our Country. And he would, I think,

be gladdened by this day; for today is the concrete expression of a stunning

fact: our continuity these 200 years since our government began.(71)

A second way new presidents express the continuity theme is to accept, for themselves and the American people, the duty of maintaining constitutional government in the United States. Constitutional government is a blessing that the present generation has inherited from preceding generations of Americans and that it must transmit, unimpaired, to succeeding generations. John Quincy Adams could speak from personal knowledge about this "sacred trust": "We now receive it [our government] as a precious inheritance from those to whom we are indebted for its establishment ... to transmit the same unimpaired to the succeeding generation."(72) Hoover was much further removed from "the men in our mighty past" who molded the nation's political ideals but he still acknowledged the duty to leave those ideals "heightened and strengthened for our children."(73)

Yet a third way new presidents express the continuity theme is to stress that, while many things change, American ideals do not. This form of expression has been particularly popular with twentieth-century presidents, who seem convinced they really are living in a Heraclitean world of flux. The first Roosevelt, again, appears to have invented this "continuity amidst change" form of expression(74) but it was Carter who took it to new levels of sublimity in quoting his favorite high-school teacher to the effect that "`We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles."'(75) Even Clinton, who made change the central theme of both his inaugural addresses, continually referred to change as renewal. He, therefore, professed to seek "[n]ot change for change sake but change to preserve America's ideals--life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Though we march to the music of our time, our mission is timeless."(76)

In any of these three forms of expression, it seems uncontestable that incoming presidents are speaking for a broader public. The abiding faith of most Americans in the inaugural tradition, with its connotations of smooth transitions of power and constitutional government, in the American mission and their own sacred trust to preserve it, and in the eternal and universal nature of their nation's political truths has been well documented in the secondary literature on American political culture.(77)

Defender of the Constitution and Union

The president has a special role to play in maintaining political continuity as the defender of the Constitution and union. His role as defender of the Constitution is, of course, part of the oath of office and eleven presidents have worked that oath into their inaugural addresses. In all, twenty-three inaugural addresses (44 percent) promise, either explicitly or implicitly, to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution or union.(78)

This inaugural theme has been one of the most patterned. Fourteen of the first nineteen inaugurals (through the Civil War) refer to this theme but only nine of the remaining thirty-three inaugurals refer to it, and only one (ironically, Richard Nixon's first) of the last sixteen. Over time the preservation of the Constitution and, particularly, the union has become ever less doubtful. Not surprisingly, the nine inaugural addresses that explicitly promise to preserve the union are all bunched between Madison and Lincoln. During this period of American history, the preservation of the union not only seemed increasingly doubtful but it also seemed closely connected to the nation's nascent political continuity and its special mission in history. In 1853, Pierce deftly wove these three inaugural themes together.

With the Union my best and dearest earthly hopes are entwined.... From that

radiant constellation which both illumines our own way and points out to

struggling nations their course, let but a single star be lost, and, if these

be not utter darkness, the luster of the whole is dimmed.... It is with me an

earnest and vital belief that as the Union has been the source, under

Providence, of our prosperity to this time, so it is the surest pledge of a

continuance of the blessings we have enjoyed, and which we are sacredly bound

to transmit undiminished to our children.(79)

The cultural significance of the Constitution and union theme lies in the long-noted tendency of Americans to worship the Constitution and, specifically during the antebellum era, the union.(80) New presidents themselves comment on, as well as encourage, this tendency. For instance, Buchanan, Pierce's immediate successor, insisted that he owed his election to "the inherent love for the Constitution and the union which still animates the hearts of the American people" and appealed for "their powerful support in sustaining all just measures calculated to perpetuate these, the richest political blessings which Heaven has ever bestowed upon any nation."(81) Since the Civil War, those "political blessings" have appeared so rich and indisputable that incoming presidents have seen little need to refer to them.


The inaugural theme of federalism is closely tied to the previous theme and it has undergone similar vicissitudes over time. Indeed, the two themes are almost always explicitly connected. New presidents stress that the Constitution protects federalism (or states' rights) and that they are especially obligated to defend that aspect of the Constitution. In his inaugural address, Polk tersely drew the connection: "Our Federal Union--it must be preserved."(82)

We do not expect to hear such language after the Civil War and we do not. Like the Constitution and union theme, the federalism theme recedes dramatically in the post-1865 period. Whereas fifteen of the first nineteen inaugurals mention this theme, only nine of the last thirty-three mention it (for a total of 46 percent). Recently, federalism, however, has enjoyed a resurgence in American politics, as anticipated, at least rhetorically, by Reagan's "new federalism."(83) While neither of Reagan's successors mentioned this theme in their inaugural addresses, they were probably attempting to do what many new presidents before them had done: to distance themselves from a particular policy agenda rather than from federalism per se.


The inaugural addresses of the presidents of the United States prominently feature eleven themes. These eleven themes link presidential inaugural addresses together as one tradition. I have suggested how the meaning of many of these themes has changed over time, as has the frequency with which they have been invoked. In the case of each theme, however, a core meaning has emerged that has not changed over time. Even recessive themes, such as nonpartisanship and federalism, have periodically, and sometimes quite unexpectedly, reappeared within the inaugural tradition. My thesis is that they reappear because they are so much part of American political culture; and because they are, new presidents, often without conscious forethought, find it politically useful to invoke them in their inaugural addresses.

Inaugural addresses are remarkably similar to one another not primarily because new presidents (or their speech writers) plug into an "inaugural address" formula, though, I am sure, that frequently occurs. The more important factor is that certain features of American politics seem so permanent and pervasive that new presidents do not even need to think about addressing them in their inaugurals. We can confidently predict that on January 20, 2001, the incoming president will again present for our edification an address that might well be entitled, "A Discourse of the Permanent and Transient in American Politics."


(1.) J. David Greenstone, "The Transient and the Permanent in American Politics: Standards, Interests, and the Concept of `Public,"' in Public Values and Private Power in American Politics, ed. J. David Greenstone (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 3-33. Parker's sermon, dated May 19, 1841, is reprinted in Perry Miller, ed., The Transcendentalists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 259-83. The analogy between Christianity and American politics might seem forced insofar as Christianity appears to include certain essential features which, if they did change, would transform into something that was unrecognizable to us as Christianity. But that is exactly the question: Do not some features of American politics have a similar status?

(2.) For example, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., The Chief Executive: Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States (New York: Crown, 1965), p. vii. insofar as the inaugural tradition defines the "transient" in American politics, it would involve not only what is idiosyncratic to each incoming president's inaugural but also short-term variations on more longstanding themes. The latter but not the former will be explicitly discussed in this study. In the following, I also recognize the inadequacy of using the inaugural tradition alone to define either the "transient" or "permanent" in American politics.

(3.) See Gregg Phifer, "Two Inaugurals: A Second Look," Southern Speech Communication Journal 48, no. 4 (1983): 381-2. This article critiques a prior study paralleling the first inaugurals of Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan. See Bert E. Bradley, "Jefferson and Reagan: The Rhetoric of Two Inaugurals," Southern Speech Communication Journal 48, no. 2 (1983): 119-36. Also see, Bert E. Bradley, "A Response to `Two Inaugurals: A Second Look,'" Southern Speech Communication Journal 48, no. 4 (1983): 386-90.

(4.) See Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990), chap. 2.

(5.) Campbell and Jamieson, Deeds Done in Words, pp. 19-21; Lee Sigelman, "Presidential Inaugurals: The Modernization of a Genre," Political Communication 13, no. 1 (1996): 82-3, 89-90.

(6.) Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States: From George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989), 1957: 300. Hereafter Inaugural Addresses.

(7.) See Richard Joslyn, "Keeping Politics in the Study of Political Discourse," in Form, Genre, and the Study of Political Discourse, eds. Herbert Simons and Aram Aghazarian (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 301-38; Edward W. Chester, "A New Look at Presidential Inaugural Addresses," Presidential Studies Quarterly 10, no.4 (1980): 571-82.

(8.) See Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York: Random House, 1963).

(9.) Inaugural Addresses, 1897: 197.

(10.) Ironically, McKinley went on to say American foreign policy is not to engage in wars of conquest, Inaugural Addresses, 1897: 200. For cultural beliefs as (loose) constraints on behavior, see Greenstone, "The Transient and the Permanent," pp. 5, 27; Lucian W. Pye, "Culture and Political Science: Problems in the Evolution of the Concept of Political Culture," Social Science Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1972): 296.

(11.) See Campbell and Jamieson, Deeds Done in Words, pp. 20-1. In a study of all the major speeches of the modern (Truman to Reagan) presidents, Barbara Hinckley emphasizes the remarkable similarity in rhetoric across presidents. At least with respect to inaugural addresses, though, she exaggerates `how much this is a departure from the practice of earlier presidents (meaning, for her, from Theodore to Franklin Roosevelt). See Barbara Hinckley, The Symbolic Presidency: How Presidents Portray Themselves (New York: Routledge, 1990). For a much more methodologically rigorous analysis of modern presidential rhetoric, see Roderick P. Hart, Verbal Style and the Presidency: A Computer-Based Analysis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984).

(12.) I excluded George Washington's second inaugural from my analysis because it did little more than repeat the oath of office. I might also mention that for illy purposes it does not matter if a particular inaugural address was ghost-written or not, since I am not analyzing inaugural addresses as statements of presidential philosophy. The use of speech writers actually is not only a recent phenomenon, though it has recently become a more formal practice. James Madison helped Washington write his first inaugural and Daniel Webster confessed to slaying "seventeen Roman procounsels" in the draft of William Henry Harrison's inaugural. See Davis Newton Lott, ed., The Inaugural Addresses of the American Presidents (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961), pp. 3, 73.

(13.) My content analysis is meant to be suggestive, not methodologically rigorous. In this respect, it is more like Campbell and Jamieson's study than Sigelman's. For earlier content analyses of presidential inaugurals, see John McDiarmid, "Presidential Inaugural Addresses--A Study in Verbal Symbols," Public Opinion Quarterly 1, no. 3 (1937): 79-83; James W. Prothro, "Verbal Shifts in the American Presidency: A Content Analysis," American Political Science Review 50, no. 3 (1956): 726-39. As I defined an inaugural theme, it was a theme that was expressed with some frequency across the full range of the inaugural addresses. A preliminary analysis showed these eleven themes to be clearly distinguished from other themes (such as treatment of Native Americans and civil-service reform) that were both much less frequently expressed and confined to discrete periods of time.

(14.) Second inaugurals form another variant within the inaugural tradition. See Campbell and Jamieson, Deeds Done in Words, pp. 34-5.

(15.) Inaugural Addresses, 1961: 308.

(16.) Ibid., 1897: 197.

(17.) Ibid., 1913: 229. For a provocative discussion of the jeremiad form, see Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978).

(18.) See Bernard Ballyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1967); Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969); J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975); Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).

(19.) Inaugural Addresses, 1857: 128.

(20.) Ibid., 1921: 243.

(21.) Ibid., 1989: 348.

(22.) Ibid., 1925: 252.

(23.) Ibid., 1929: 265.

(24.) Ibid., 1961: 305. Also see Ibid., 1845: 110; 1877: 157; 1897: 201; 1913: 227.

(25.) See Perry Goldman, "Political Virtue in the Age of Jackson," Political Science Quarterly 87, no. 1 (1972): 46-62; Ronald P. Formisano, "Deferential-Participant Politics: The Early Republic's Political Culture, 1789-1840," American Political Science Review 68, no. 2 (1974): 473-87.

(26.) Inaugural Addresses, 1789: 3.

(27.) Ibid., 1801: 15.

(28.) Ibid., 1985: 340, 343; 1989: 348-9; The New York Times, January 21, 1997, A12.

(29.) See Walter Dean Burnham, "The Changing Shape of the American Electorate," American Political Science Review 59, no. 1 (1965): 7-28; Michael E. McGerr, Tile Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

(30.) While I am far from convinced that the late nineteenth century, or any other period of American history, represented a zenith of party behavior, it should be noted that every inaugural address from Hayes's to McKinley's second does sound the anti-party theme. One might attribute the attention Reagan, Bush, and Clinton (in his second but not his first inaugural) pay to this theme to the fact that they faced a divided government. Yet, divided government could not be the sole explanation since Reagan did not refer to the theme in his first inaugural nor did Richard Nixon in either of his two inaugurals or Eisenhower in his second inaugural when they also faced opposite-party majorities in Congress. (Divided government also does not track as well as one might expect with the cooperation with Congress theme.) This pattern suggests the obvious: there will always be idiosyncratic variation in whether, and how, these themes are invoked.

(31.) Inaugural Addresses, 1981: 333.

(32.) Ibid., 1817: 40.

(33.) Ibid., 1977: 330.

(34.) See Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955).

(35.) See Michael Kammen, "The Problem of American Exceptionalism: A Reconsideration," American Quarterly 45, no. 1 (1993): 1-43.

(36.) The New York Times, January 21, 1993, A11. Both Hart and Sigelman emphasize this inaugural theme. See Hart, Verbal Style, pp. 58-60; Sigelman, "Presidential Inaugurals," pp. 83-4. Clinton's second inaugural is an anomaly for its stress on the nation's racial divisions but this may be if an art act of the fact it occurred on Martin Luther King Day and, in any case, those divisions become the text for a tribute to "one America" (New York, Times, January 21, 1997, A12).

(37.) Inaugural Addresses, 1909: 213-25.

(38.) Ibid., 1877: 154.

(39.) Ibid., 1949: 286.

(40.) See Hartz, The Liberal Tradition, pp. 9-10.

(41.) Inaugural Addresses, 1825: 60.

(42.) See Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (New York: Popular Library, 1973); Jeffrey K. Tulls, The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).

(43.) Inaugural Addresses, 1933: 273. Roosevelt's vow was to, if necessary, ask Congress for emergency powers to govern the nation in the face of the Great Depression.

(44.) See Hinckley, The Symbolic Presidency, pp. 121-2. Coolidge's inaugural was the first to be nationally broadcast. I might note that the three most recent inaugurals do mention the cooperation with Congress theme (Inaugural Addresses, 1989: 348-9; The New York Times, January 21, 1993, A11; The New York Times, January 21, 1997, A12).

(45.) Inaugural Addresses, 1841: 82-3, 87-90. Harrison's target was, of course, the Democratic presidencies of his immediate predecessors, Van Buren and Jackson. Harrison was the first Whig president and the Whigs had been fond of calling Jackson, "King Andrew." See Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 87-91.

(46.) Inaugural Addresses, 1925: 255.

(47.) Ibid., 1901: 204.

(48.) Ibid., 1913: 231.

(49.) Ibid., 1821: 50-1.

(50.) Ibid., 1981: 333.

(51.) Ibid., 1809: 28.

(52.) Ibid., 1949: 285.

(53.) See Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1992).

(54.) While Hinckley calls attention to this shift in presidential voice, she, again, exaggerates its nature. See Hinckley, The Symbolic Presidency, pp. 39-44. Also see Nancy Miller, and William Stiles, "Verbal Familiarity in American Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speeches and Inaugural Addresses, 1920-1981," Social Psychology Quarterly 49, no. 1 (1986): 72-81; Sigelman, "Presidential Inaugurals," pp. 86-7.

(55.) Inaugural Addresses, 1989: 347.

(56.) Ibid., 1989: 350.

(57.) Ibid., 1789: 2-4.

(58.) Ibid., 1821: 52.

(59.) Ibid., 1797: 12.

(60.) Roosevelt used the phrase, "the Giver of the Good" (Inaugural Addresses, 1905: 209). Beside John Adams, the only presidents to explicitly refer to Christianity in their inaugural addresses were William Henry Harrison (Ibid., 1841: 97), Buchanan (Ibid., 1857: 131), and Lincoln (Ibid., 1861: 141).

(61.) See Robert Alley, So Help Me God: Religion and the Presidency, Wilson to Nixon (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1972), pp. 24-5; Richard G. Hutcheson, Jr., God in the White House: How Religion Has Changed the Modern Presidency (New York: Collier, 1989), p. 17.

(62.) Thus, I agree with those who argue, as against Robert Bellah, that the nation's "civil religion" seems neither particularly Christian nor particularly religious. Bellah's original essay, "Civil Religion in America," is reprinted, along with various criticisms and Bellah's response, in Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, eds., American Civil Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1974). Also see James H. Smylie, "Providence and Presidents: Types of American Piety in Presidential Inaugurals," Religion in Life 35, no. 2 (1966): 270-82; Alley, So Help Me God, chap. 1; Dante Germino, The Inaugural Addresses of the American Presidents: The Public Philosophy and Rhetoric (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), p. 3.

(63.) Inaugural Addresses, 1789: 3-4.

(64.) Ibid., 1801: 15.

(65.) Ibid., 1989: 347. In addition to Merk's work cited above, see Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935); Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1968); Tony Smith, America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

(66.) See Germino, Inaugural Addresses, pp. 15-31; Hinckley, The Symbolic Presidency, pp. 83, 86.

(67.) Franklin Roosevelt's fourth inaugural was the last one to claim the American people were specially favored by God, Inaugural Addresses, 1945: 284.

(68.) Inaugural Addresses, 1965: 311.

(69.) Ibid., 1913: 228.

(70.) Ibid., 1825: 53.

(71.) Ibid., 1989: 345-6. Thirteen inaugurals comment on how they are part of a long tradition; six quote or explicitly refer to previous inaugurals. Campbell and Jamieson emphasize how the latter practice is an important part of any tradition. See Campbell and Jamieson, Deeds Done in Words, p. 21.

(72.) Inaugural Addresses, 1825: 54.

(73.) Ibid., 1929: 266.

(74.) Ibid., 1905: 211.

(75.) Ibid., 1977: 327.

(76.) The New York Times, January 21, 1993, A11; Ibid., 1997, 1.

(77.) See Paul C. Nagel, This Sacred Trust: American Nationality, 1798-1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971). Sigelman also emphasizes this inaugural theme. See Sigelman, "Presidential Inaugurals," pp. 87-8.

(78.) It is possible that the instances of this inaugural theme are inflated because it is part of the oath of office, but it is more likely that they are deflated for that reason.

(79.) Inaugural Addresses, 1853: 121-2.

(80.) See Paul C. Nagel, One Nation Indivisible: The Union in American Thought, 1776-1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964); Michael Kammen, A Machine That Would Go of Itself The Constitution in American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1986).

(81.) Inaugural Addresses, 1857: 126.

(82.) Ibid., 1845: 103. Polk here is repeating Jackson's famous 1830 Jefferson Day toast in Charleston challenging the South Carolina nullifiers. See William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 192.

(83.) Inaugural Addresses, 1981: 333; 1985: 339, 341. See Martha Derthick, "American Federalism: Madison's Middle Ground in the 1980s," Public Administration Review 47, no. 1 (1987): 66-74; Robert A. Goldwin and William A. Schambra, eds., How Federal Is the Constitution (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1987); David B. Walker, The Rebirth of Federalism: Slouching toward Washington (Chatham, NJ: Chatham, 1995).

DAVID F. ERICSON Assistant Professor of Political Science Wichita State University
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Title Annotation:Rules of the Game: How to Play the Presidency
Author:Erickson, David F.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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