A Way With Words

February 12, 2004
research-2Martin Medhurst studies presidential style -- not George W. Bush's jeans and boots or Bill Clinton's latest haircut -- but what they say and how they say it. In fact, Medhurst has been studying such discourse long enough to write or edit nine books on presidential rhetoric and to set up publishing programs for scholars around the country. His work has added dozens of volumes to the body of knowledge about presidents and provides an insightful window into the culture of almost any given era.
Medhurst came to Baylor last fall as the University's first Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Communication. He has taught for 25 years and spent the last 15 developing the nationally known Program in Presidential Rhetoric at Texas A&M University. He will return this month to present a paper at A&M's annual conference on presidential rhetoric -- a conference he instituted in 1993. His subject: the president and culture wars.
"An example of this would be George W. Bush making a statement that he thinks marriage is between a man and a woman. That's the presidency stepping directly into a cultural war issue and taking a stand on it, which is rather unusual for presidents," Medhurst says. "They mostly try not to take stands on such issues because they are wedge issues that usually divide people."
When it comes to communicating with the public, the Bushes -- father and son -- are an example where the apple did fall far from the tree. Bush senior didn't communicate well with the public and had to deal with the consequences, Medhurst says. It was a lesson the younger Bush heeded. "I loved George Herbert Walker Bush, but his practice of public discourse left a lot to be desired. In part, that was because he did not particularly value that dimension of the presidency," he says.
The current president values public communication highly and practices his speeches, Medhurst says, something his father hated to do because he never liked giving them. "But the current president understands connecting with the public through the media is vital in getting your message across. He does a lot of things that show his understanding of and appreciation for public communication."
Medhurst works on connecting the public to the president, too. He got into the study of presidential discourse because of his interest in Cold War rhetoric and much of his research is on Dwight D. Eisenhower. Medhurst has written and edited books on the former president and is in the process of compiling articles he's written on specific DDE discourses into a book to illustrate Eisenhower's use of public persuasion.
Medhurst also is co-authoring a book on presidential speechwriting, an ongoing work of more than 20 years. "I spend a lot of my time interviewing presidential speechwriters about that process," he says. The list includes Clark Clifford (Truman), Theodore Sorensen (Kennedy), Bill Moyers and Ben Watterberg (Johnson), Peggy Noonan and Tony Dolan (Reagan), Michael Waldman (Clinton) and Michael Gerson (George W. Bush). He also is working on an annotated bibliography of presidential rhetoric.
He leveraged his interest in this topic to help create advanced degrees at A&M, where he also established a lecture series, the previously mentioned annual conference and a book series. At Baylor, he wants to design a course of study that builds on the University's Baptist heritage. "It seems to make much more sense to focus on religious discourse and how that may impact the public realm," he says. He also would like to establish doctoral programs in several areas of communication, including rhetoric and public affairs. "In the case of presidential religious rhetoric, these categories overlap."
In addition to his own writing, Medhurst spent the last decade creating publishing opportunities for other writers. In 1993, he founded a book series at Michigan State University Press titled The Rhetoric and Public Affairs Series, the first volume of which was the book he edited on Eisenhower. Currently, the series consists of 17 award-winning volumes written by scholars throughout the United States, and Medhurst expects the series to continue indefinitely. In 1998, MSU Press also began publishing the interdisciplinary journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs, which Medhurst still edits. It won the Best New Journal Award that year from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. He also started a second book series at Texas A&M University Press titled The Presidential Rhetoric Series, which consists of eight titles in print, including Medhurst's own coedited volume on presidential speechwriting. A monograph series titled The Library of Presidential Rhetoric is his latest undertaking. It consists of small volumes that analyze individual speeches such as FDR's first inaugural address and Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace speech. Four monographs have appeared to date, with a goal of 50 volumes to be completed within the next 10 years, including at least one on George W. Bush.
Medhurst says it is important to consider what presidents say throughout their tenure, not just during high-profile moments. "After a campaign, we pay attention to the president for the first few months, then we don't pay attention unless there's a war or a depression or some cataclysmic event," he says. If that happens, then presidential rhetoric becomes very important, he says, because it's the directional beacon that the public uses to understand what is happening.
Such an example in the younger Bush's presidency was after September 11. "[It] totally transformed his presidency and the way people attend to what he says," Medhurt says. Because of that event, Bush is "probably more closely listened to than any president since the last Gulf War."

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