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Presidential Genres

Summarized from Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

The types of presidential rhetoric we study are akin to traditional rhetorical forms but are peculiarly shaped by the presidency. We develop a "generic framework" ["generic" in the sense of "genre"]. Presidential speeches can be classifiedby setting and by audience (congress, people, other countries): "rhetorical form follows institutional function." (p. 7)

"Genre" means kind, sort, category. Generic criticism involves classifying or typing objects. Generic critics are "interesting in those similarities that make works rhetorically absorbing and consequential. . . . . In short, generic analysis studies the links between function and form." (p. 8) We focus on individual speeches only to illustrate the type.

What about the problem of ghostwriters? They have been present from the start and are part of the presidency. "In that regard, we shall treat the presidency as an aggregate of people, as a corporate entity. From that perspective, an administration encompasses more than a single person, the president. In that sense, the presidency is a syndicate generating the actions associated with the head of state, including those deeds done in words." (p. 11)

A generic perspective involves three kinds of evaluation: (1) judging how well a work is adapted to achieve its ends; (2) identifying outstanding examples of a given type; and--given an institutional focus--(3) judging how well rhetoric has been used to sustain and adapt the presidency as an institution.

Campbell and Jamieson focus on eight genres of presidential statements,devoting a chapter to each genre:

1. An Inaugural Address (pp. 14-15) seeks to
  • unify the audience by reconstituting its members as the people, who can witness and ratify the ceremony;
  • rehearse communal values drawn from the past;
  • set forth the political principles that will govern the new administration; and
  • demonstrate through enactment that the president appreciates the requirements and limitations of executive functions.
  • "Finally, each of these ends must be achieved through means appropriate to epideictic* address . . . "
    • *"A form of rhetoric that praises or blames on ceremonial occasions, invites the audience to evaluate the speaker's performance, recalls the part and speculates about the future while focusing on the present, employs a noble, dignified literary style, and amplifies or rehearses admitted facts." (p. 14)

2. A State of the Union Address is characterized by (pp- 54-63):

  • public meditations on values,
  • assessments of information and issues
  • policy recommendations.

3. A Veto message (p. 77):

  • is a response to a specific piece of legislation,
  • is framed around presidential objections
  • is designed to provoke congressional reconsideration.

4. War Rhetoric has these features (p. 105):

  • every element in it proclaims that the momentous decision to resort to force is deliberate, the product of thoughtful consideration;
  • forceful intervention is Justified through a chronicle or narrative from which argumentative claims are drawn;
  • the audience is exhorted to unanimity of purpose and total commitment;
  • the rhetoric not only justifies the use of force but also seeks to legitimate presidential assumption of the extraordinary powers of the commander in chief; and, as a function of these other characteristics,
  • strategic misrepresentations play an unusually significant role it its appeals

5. Rhetoric to Forestall Impeachment follow three basic lines of argument (p. 138):

  • The presidents had kept their oath of office to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution;
  • The actions of their accusers undermined the Constitution.
  • The president is responsible ultimately to the people and to the Constitution, not to congressional accusers.

6. Rhetoric of Impeachment features these conditions (p. 163):

  • the president was physically absent from the scene of debate;
  • the president was compelled to respond to specific charges at a particular time and place;
  • in responding to charges that the oath of office was violated, the president's use of the strategy of apologia was severely limited; and
  • there was an immediate audience that had to reach a formal verdict expressed in a vote.

7. Rhetoric of pardoning has three key elements (pp. 168-169):

  • acting in the presidential role as symbolic head of state;
  • demonstrating that this is an opportune time for action; and
  • justifying the pardon as for the public good.

8. Farewells have certain distinctive characteristics (p. 194):

  • they occur when the president can assume a persona combining the role of leader and visionary;
  • for bequeathal to occur, the legacy must be consistent with the character of the president and with the events and rhetoric of that administration;
  • consistent with its character as epideictic rhetoric, the legacy must be offered for contemplation rather than action;
  • enduring legacies are encapsulated in a memorable phrase or sentence that reminds the citizenry of an enduring truth about our system of government.