The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush

The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush

by Evan Cornog

A masterly new look at the American presidency, revealing the importance of the way presidents craft personal narratives-persuasive storytelling that has a crucial effect on the electorate and the nation.

Perfectly timed for the 2004 election, Evan Cornog's The Power and the Story raises a thesis so integral to the discussion that it's surprising it'sSee more details below


A masterly new look at the American presidency, revealing the importance of the way presidents craft personal narratives-persuasive storytelling that has a crucial effect on the electorate and the nation.

Perfectly timed for the 2004 election, Evan Cornog's The Power and the Story raises a thesis so integral to the discussion that it's surprising it's never been posited before. The key to a successful election, administration, and ultimate legacy is, in great measure, the crafting of the presidential story. The impact of these stories on the electorate and the nation is almost beyond measure, because it is often these stories that we call American history.

The sheer narrative drive of "the war hero," "the Rhodes scholar," "the drunkard-or recovered alcoholic," "the small-town boy," "the log cabin," "the cherry tree," "the good old boy," "the Rough Rider," and on and on can come to define a leader, an administration, and an entire era. The Power and the Story is the investigation of the story behind that story: how, with deliberation and occasional manipulation, a president's crafting of his public image has surmounted scandal, capitalized on opportunity, obfuscated flaws, and created legend. And how presidential storymaking has been a professional undertaking on the part of the media and spin meisters as well-from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Karl Rove.

There is, of course, the larger story as well. Cornog's book is a meditation on the American psyche and our penchant for storytelling. Questions are raised about what makes for the quintessential story; in what sense are Americans misled by the neatness imposed by storyline; and perhaps, most important, why are we so eager to see our leaders in this easily comprehensible light? All questions very much of the moment, and Cornog's sound and fascinating answers to them make this book essential campaign-season reading-and a lasting investigation of the presidency.

Author Biography: Evan Cornog is the associate dean for policy and planning at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He was educated at Harvard and Columbia and has taught American history at Columbia, CUNY, and Lafayette College. He also worked as press secretary for former Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York City. Cornog is the author of The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828 and coauthor of Hats in the Ring: An Illustrated History of American Presidential Campaigns.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publishers Weekly
Repackaging presidential history for our age of "spin," Cornog's lively if reductionist work argues that it's "the battle of stories, not the debate on issues, that determines how Americans respond to a presidential contender." In making this argument, Cornog, associate dean at Columbia's journalism school and author of Hats in the Ring, a campaign history, touches on the roles of candidates, the public, the press and historians in crafting (or debunking) images and reputations. No reader will put down the book without greater appreciation of the role of tales, both tall and true, in our public history. To his credit, Cornog only occasionally drops into cynicism, as when he says that the role of images shows "the relative unimportance of truth." But sometimes he succumbs to melodrama, as in his grandiose conclusion: "The future of the nation, and the world, depends upon the abilities of American citizens to choose the right stories." And devoting a full chapter only to George W. Bush seems a ploy for media attention in this election year. More seriously, Cornog shortchanges such other important historical factors as presidential actions and national power. In sum, this is a pleasant but not weighty work. Agent, Melanie Jackson. (On sale Aug. 9) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Cornog (Columbia Journalism Review) here asserts that "the secret of presidential success is storytelling." Especially valuable as another presidential election is upon us, his book explores the psychological appeal of a story line's "seductive neatness" while showing how the President's public image is carefully crafted by campaign strategists. Cornog shares familiar and fascinating anecdotes, many from recent elections. He considers the importance of family background and childhood stories, military heroics, the use of campaign biographies, transition stories as a candidate becomes President, and life after the presidency. Some Presidents, like the late Ronald Reagan, have had great powers of persuasion; others were reluctant "actors" on the White House stage. Cornog concludes with a look at George W. Bush, a "story in progress." An entire chapter devoted to presidential scandals (sex, money, power), though entertaining, diverges too much from the main theme. Still, this timely work is highly recommended for most libraries. Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
George Washington threw a dollar coin across the Delaware, George Dubya, the onetime "Texas Prince Hal yearning to become Henry V," throws missiles at Iraq. Who can tell how the spin will play?Writes Cornog, associate dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, once-upon-a-time stories sell candidates and make legacies, and any president worth his salt has taken great pains to see to it that his story-the "crafted presidential narrative" of the subtitle-is shaped and then told to maximum advantage. Nixon got it right (thanks in large part to then-speechwriter and now apostate conservative Kevin Phillips) when he ran with the notion that he was representing the "silent majority," the nonprotesting, law-abiding taxpayers of Anytown USA; through Nixon's dogged sticking to that very story, writes Cornog, "the term �silent majority' successfully established itself in public discourse, doing its master's bidding faithfully." Nixon got it wrong before that selfsame court of public opinion when, on his way out the Oval Office door post-Watergate, he snuffled that no one would write a book about his sainted mother, an episode that more Americans are inclined to remember about the fallen president. It's all wheel-of-fortune stuff: as Cornog provocatively notes, George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq may have in some regard been an effort to rewrite the ending of his father's administration, which isn't remembered for much of anything save squandering victory in the first Gulf War, and that wheel is still in spin; we could end up with two bad stories, not one. And though Americans, Cornog asserts, like fairy tales, like to hear that their president enjoys "the happy family that we all wish weretrue of our own," they don't much enjoy excessive moralizing-which is why the nation never really loved Jimmy Carter but was inclined to forgive Bill Clinton his indiscretions and Ronald Reagan his dopiness. Interesting and enjoyable reading for the election year, with a bonus story among many other presidential narratives: the origins of the Baby Ruth candy bar. Agent: Melanie Jackson/Melanie Jackson Agency

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.44(h) x 1.09(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Power and the Story

By Evan Cornog

The Penguin Press

Copyright © 2004 Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59420-022-X

Chapter One

Badly burned in the fire that had accompanied the destruction of his boat by a Japanese destroyer, Pat McMahon had been in the water for nearly four hours. The sea was warm, but McMahon was afraid of sharks (and had seen plenty of them in his patrols in these waters); and he was in great pain. McMahon was wearing a kapok life jacket, the straps of which were held in the clenched teeth of the officer who was towing him toward shore. After more than four hours of swimming, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy was spent, and as he finally reached the shore of Plum Pudding Island, he collapsed-with his feet still in the water and his face in the sand. In spite of the burns on his hands and arms, Pat McMahon tried to pull Kennedy ashore and then urged his commander to move toward the bushes that would conceal them from any passing Japanese patrol boats. Kennedy managed to crawl forward, and soon the balance of his crew, which had followed in his wake as he towed McMahon, struggled ashore and took cover. A few minutes later, a Japanese patrol boat did go by, but its crew did not spot the American sailors.

In the early morning hours of August 1, 1943, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri ("Heavenly Mist") rammed PT-109, the patrol torpedo boat Kennedy commanded in the Solomon Islands during the Second World War. One member of Kennedy's crew was crushed to death instantly, and the Amigiri's prow sliced through the boat only a few feet from Kennedy's spot in the cockpit. Kennedy succeeded in gathering together the surviving members of his crew on the still-floating prow of the PT-109, but it was apparent that the hulk would either sink or, failing that, be conspicuous enough to attract the attention of the Japanese. So Kennedy decided to lead his men to Plum Pudding Island, a tiny speck, a hundred yards long by seventy wide, which JFK chose as the destination because it was both large enough to conceal his ten surviving men and small enough not to have a Japanese garrison stationed there. But rescue from the immediate peril of drowning or capture by the Japanese did not end the plight of the crew.

Kennedy soon decided that the island was too far away from the normal path of American PT boats in the area to be able to signal for rescue, so he led his men on another swim to the larger island of Naru (or, as Kennedy thought, Nauro). There they were fortunate to encounter two natives who were providing intelligence to the Allies about Japanese activities. On the husk of a coconut Kennedy carved the message NAURO ISL NATIVE KNOWS POSIT HE CAN PILOT 11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT KENNEDY and asked the natives to take it to their Allied contact. His message had its intended effect: Rescuers were dispatched, and on August 8, 1943, a week after the sinking of PT-109, Kennedy and his crew returned to their base.

The story of Kennedy's heroism following the sinking of PT-109 formed a crucial part of his biography when he ran for president in 1960. Survivors of the action campaigned with Kennedy in the fall, and then rode on a PT-109 float in the inaugural parade. Kennedy's story had become widely known long before the campaign, because he came from a prominent family (his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had been chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to be ambassador to Great Britain).

After the rescue was complete the story appeared in papers like the Boston Herald and the New York Times, and in 1944, Kennedy's PT-109 exploits were chronicled in The New Yorker by John Hersey, who two years later wrote Hiroshima, the classic account of the first atomic bomb attack. Hersey's 1944 piece opens casually, saying that Kennedy (identified tersely as "the ex-Ambassador's son") "came through town the other day and told me the story of his survival in the South Pacific. I asked Kennedy if I might write the story down." Kennedy urged Hersey to talk to his crew, which the reporter did. The resulting article portrays Kennedy in heroic terms, describing his physical sufferings and making clear his leadership qualities. With his men despairing that they would never be rescued, "Kennedy was still unwilling to admit that things were hopeless." It was a glowing portrait and a useful asset for a young man headed toward a career in politics.

For the presidential aspirant to have a chance, he must first be noticed. There must be a point of entry onto the national stage, an event that separates him from others and brings him to prominence. Such stories of emergence are not self-creating. They arise out of the way a person structures his life and circumstances, the way credit is given and taken, and the way the press plays the story. As the narrative develops, there are moments of risk, and those who are not willing to take the risk or who muff their chances do not remain in the game.

Not all presidential contenders have dramatic moments of emergence. Few are given the sort of opportunity for heroism that Kennedy encountered, and fewer still take advantage of their opportunity. But when a man makes a grand first impression on the public stage, it helps mark him as a certain kind of man and a certain kind of leader. It can also, if the circumstances are right, provide a vivid first chapter of a life that eventually seems to fit the role of president. A good origin myth takes a contender a long way.


Excerpted from The Power and the Story by Evan Cornog Copyright © 2004 by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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