Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency

Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency


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It's a common complaint that a presidential candidate's style matters more than substance and that the issues have been eclipsed by mass-media-fueled obsession with a candidate's every slip, gaffe, and peccadillo. This book explores political communication in American presidential politics, focusing on what political insiders call "message." Message, Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein argue, is not simply an individual's positions on the issues but the craft used to fashion the creature the public sees as the candidate. Lempert and Silverstein examine some of the revelatory moments in debates, political ads, interviews, speeches, and talk shows to explain how these political creations come to have a life of their own. From the pandering "Flip-Flopper" to the self-reliant "Maverick," the authors demonstrate how these figures are fashioned out of the verbal, gestural, sartorial, behavioral—as well as linguistic—matter that comprises political communication.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253007520
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/12/2012
Pages: 284
Sales rank: 1,038,705
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael Lempert is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and author of Discipline and Debate: The Illiberal Buddha in the Tibetan Diaspora.

Michael Silverstein is Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Psychology and in the Committee on Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. His published works include Talking Politics: The substance of style from Abe to "W."

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Creatures of Politics

Media, Message, and the American Presidency

By Michael Lempert, Michael Silverstein

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00756-8



"Message" Is the Medium

If the genius of the Clinton campaign was its disciplined focus on message—"The economy, stupid"—the Clinton transition stumbled slightly out of the gate.

Although it harnessed masterfully the new prestige of the president-elect with Clinton's symbolic reaching out to common people during his walk on Georgia Avenue last week, it has also endured a torrent of stories about such "off message" matters as homosexuals in the military and the role of Hillary Clinton.

— Washington Post, 22 November 1992

What Is "Message" in American Politics?

In their professional jargon, political insiders call it simply—and to many outsiders, misleadingly—"message." It is the politician's publicly imaginable 'character' presented to an electorate, with a biography and a moral profile crafted out of issues rendered of interest in the public sphere. In this book we examine the ways in which modern electoral politics in the United States revolves around contests over "message."

For better or worse, "message" in political parlance is easily confused with the word message in its everyday colloquial sense or even with its use by many students of communication. In politics "message" is not the topic, theme, central holding, or proposition of a swatch of political discourse—what someone is "literally communicating," we might say. Though it sounds like the term should mean what political figures literally say about the state of the world and what should be done about matters under discussion and debate, such as offshore drilling, the debt ceiling, unemployment, health-care mandates, and social security solvency—let alone contraception and same-sex marriage—it does not. In fact, Message (from here on we drop the quotation marks and capitalize instead) does not refer to a politician's communication about Issues so much as what the politician seems to communicate about his or her identity and personal values through selectively taking up some Issues and avoiding others, and in its negative form through identifying a competitor with the dangerous Issues to be kept at arm's distance from oneself. A politician's persona becomes visible as a collage-in-motion of communicative Issue events: through becoming identified in this way with Issues, he or she acquires a political persona. So here is the strategically useful ambiguity of the term. Message as a technical term misdirects the unsuspecting by seeming to steer their attention toward the literal content of political talk—after all, shouldn't politicians still address "The Issues! The Issues!" in the civics books' view of political process?—while Message strategists work diligently behind the scenes. What they are fashioning is an electorally viable political persona through all manner of signs that creatively gesture toward this persona without explicitly describing it, though the political press, the media, can generally be relied upon to do so.

"I will hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are!" So proclaimed Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry in his first televised bout with President George W. Bush in 2004—the topic, foreign policy. Senator Kerry was inhabiting a recognizable character: "Tough!"—tough on terror, the television viewers of the debate were supposed to infer, which is just what the Bush campaign had already charged that Kerry wasn't and wouldn't be if elected. Earlier in the primaries, Kerry's positive, self-focused Message became one of genuine—as opposed to ersatz—(and what's more, multiply decorated!) service in the Vietnam War, with its obvious projection into who most likely would be the heroic gunboat commander in the so-called War on Terror. Of course, immediately after Super Tuesday on 2 March 2004, the Republican National Committee (RNC) rolled out a huge, negative Message campaign about Kerry, true to Karl Rove's signature style, hitting Mr. Kerry precisely in one of his supposed Message strengths. Suddenly we saw pictures—later even a movie made for the Sinclair TV conglomerate—of Kerry's anti–Vietnam War testimony before Congress in 1971, and of his participation in rallies with—gasp!—Jane Fonda (still a negative poster girl for the Republican hard-right base). From March 2004 on, the Republicans mobilized further, fail-safe weapons in their attack against Senator Kerry's war hero Message of tough resoluteness. In Message, Senate votes of twenty years earlier and those of yesterday are artfully compressed. Mr. Kerry, it was asserted, had repeatedly voted against developing and procuring key weapons systems in the "Star Wars" Reagan years, yet was now posturing as a warrior. The senator was irresolute on the Iraq invasion, which Dubya had dubbed the current War on Terror; there were even video clips of Kerry saying he voted now one way, now another. He was not only less than stand-tough and pro-military on these matters of the national defense; he was, in Message-ese, a "flip-flopper"!

But worse. In late summer 2004, Senator Kerry was caught in widely disseminated still photographs and on video windsurfing, in clinging spandex no less, on the waters off patrician Nantucket Island. When the footage was set to the tune of Strauss's "Blue Danube" waltz, as the Bush campaign did in an attack ad released on television right before the first presidential debate, the pointed visual metaphor consolidated the critique of Kerry as not merely a flip-flopper, but an effete flip-flopper—tacking back and forth in the wind, unable to make up his mind: not a strong, decisive leader. No wonder that in that first debate, in that line about hunting down and killing terrorists, Kerry would try to sound like someone who would lead the "war" effort and pull the trigger himself, not like someone who would push a policy pen at the behest of his advisers.

Compare Senator Kerry's performance with a similar tough-on-terror point made in an altogether different style by then Sen. Barack Obama in the first Democratic primary debate of 2007, held in late April in South Carolina (MSNBC 2007b). Co-moderator Brian Williams of NBC News asked Obama what he would do as president if "we learned that two American cities had been hit simultaneously by terrorists and we further learned beyond the shadow of a doubt it had been the work of al-Qaeda."

"Well ...," the senator began in response—he often began turns this way—and then started to unfurl a plan, an interminably lengthy plan. When he finally got around to saying concretely what he would do in response to the hypothetical terror attack, he seemed to bury this action deep in the lower strata and clauses of lawyerly syntactic convolution: "The second thing is to make sure that we've got good intelligence, a., to find out that we don't have other threats and attacks potentially out there, and b., to find out, do we have any intelligence on who might have carried it out, so that we can take potentially some action to dismantle that network" (emphasis added). The would-be president's "tak[ing] action," qualified by "potentially" and hedged with "some," sounds tentative, noncommittal—in fact, hardly like "taking action" at all after all that! And though the quotation as we give it does not show this, the otherwise tough-sounding final complement clause that follows—"to dismantle that network "—compounds Obama's poor rhetorical showing, slowed fore and aft as it were, as if with speed bumps, by filled pauses: ... uh ... to dismantle ... uh. ... To many observers, and certainly to campaign antagonists within the Hillary Clinton campaign, Senator Obama's response sounded ruminatively wonkish, indecisive rather than response-ready, and, in a word, weak. (In fact, Obama recognized that he had veered off Message in his delivery after Senator Clinton nailed her answer with the promise of swift retaliation. He felt compelled to double back and answer it again in his next chance to hold the floor, and wasted no time showing that he, too, would be tough on terror: "But one thing that I do have to go back on uh—on this issue of terrorism. We have genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down, networks have to be dismantled.")

So compare the two: "hunt down and kill the terrorists," executed—literally, we can imagine—by a heroic "I," a President Kerry himself, versus "dismantle ... uh ... that [terrorist] network," executed ultimately by an amorphous Obama administration's "we" after waiting for two different kinds of "good intelligence," and no doubt with bipartisan congressional approval and even European Union support! Two very different political creatures seem to be speaking, even though Senator Kerry and Senator Obama were talking about doing almost the same thing, no doubt both knowing pretty much how such things work in the executive branch. Two very different kinds of Message were being performed for the viewing public.

Consider even something as particular as the pronunciation of a proper name. What do we implicitly understand about politicians who pronounce "Pakistan" differently? In the first cross-party presidential debate of September 2008, many observers seized upon the contrast between Senator Obama's pronunciation of "Pakistan" and Senator John McCain's. For example, National Review author Kathryn Jean Lopez (2008) wrote: "When Obama says Pock-i-stahn I have an uncontrollable urge to read the New Yorker and find some Chardonnay. Fortunately I have an old copy of NR and a Coor's Light to snap me back to reality. Seriously though—no one in flyover country says Pock-i-stahn. It's annoying." Look at the rich, if stereotyped, series of opposed emblems of identity—in this instance, of United States cultural and political geography and political orientation—Ms. Lopez discerns in the very phonetics of a single word in the candidates' repertoires: out-of-it left-liberal coastal elites, the people in the fringe "blue" states, reading the New Yorker while sipping their chardonnay (whether French or Californian) versus down-to-earth right-conservative ordinary folks in in-between "red" places over which nonstop airplanes fly between New York and Los Angeles, takin' in vintage National Review while drinkin' their Coors, produced by and named for the radically right-wing brewing family. (To be sure, predominantly coastal—and Democratic—intellectual elites had long had a field day with "W's" almost too stagey-by-half semiliterate pronunciations of "Eye-Rack" [Iraq] and "Eye-Ran" [Iran] and his delicious malapropisms and other articulatory fumblings of jus' plain ol' folkdom from Flyover-land. So here is a tit-for-tat blow in the War on Terroir—as one says in the wine trade—struck "for the Gipper," as it were, or at least for Senator McCain's and Governor Sarah Palin's peeps.)

To Obama's defense came writers like Washington Monthly's Steve Benen (2008), who has picked up at least on the vowel sounds ("ah") of the name of the country, if not on the emphasis or stress that falls on the final syllable: "Barack Obama pronounces 'Pakistan' correctly, with a soft 'a,' just like a lot of people who know what they're talking about, including Gen. David Petraeus. Apparently, having completely run out of compelling policy arguments to make, some high-profile conservatives have decided to make this their latest campaign hobbyhorse." For viewers who even subliminally registered this contrast in their pronunciations—as most of the audience would indeed do—the candidates seemed thereby to be aligning either with those cosmopolitans who were educated enough not only to know how Pakistanis pronounce the name of their own country but also to care enough to take note, or with those who take comfort and pride in Americanizing country names and other foreign words. So it is not difficult to understand how such contrasts could be construed by commentators to reveal details about the respective candidates, including, for some, liberal versus conservative lifestyles, down to gendered and classed beverage preferences, all the while both candidates were clearly understood by all to be referring to the very same country. From a seemingly minor but pregnant difference in place-name pronunciation comes a cascade of inferences about who—that is, sociologically, from what social and value segments and sectors of the populace—candidates really are. In the chapters that follow, we examine politicians' communication and its close reading by seekers of Message, showing how political creatures are fashioned in-and-by their own political talk and, more precisely, by the talk about political talk that is its hoped-for and sometimes dreaded immediate consequence. Candidates for office become personae who are believable or imaginable as incumbents—or not—through critical readings of what their signs "give off" in the way of (in)coherent Message, as Erving Goffman (1959) once put it in his classic writings on self-presentation. This turns out to be a complex, multitiered process that is embedded and institutionalized in our politics, and we lay bare some of its central workings.

Message Aesthetics: Plotlines and Laugh/Gasp Lines

Transparent naturalism, it should be clear, is not the Message-relevant aesthetic in American politics (recalling the hilarious I-am-what-I-am premise of the Warren Beatty film Bulworth [1998] or the melodramatic moments of Steven Zaillian's All the King's Men [2006]). Campaigns portray their candidate's virtues without care for preserving nuance and gritty biographical detail—foibles and all—unless they are part of a coherent appeal the candidate can inhabit. The foibles will be exposed, by fair means or foul, through media scrutiny and the wiles of campaign antagonists and their 527(c) advocacy arms. And before a candidate even enters the fray, what we might at first think of as gross negatives from his or her past will be preemptively absorbed into a triumphant coming-of-age story, ideally published as memoir, wherein boozy or druggy high jinks and abusive fatherhood and spousal philandering become character-building episodes on the way to today's redeemed, reformed, and rededicated paragon. In this respect even Lincoln, not to mention Andrew Jackson, was lucky as a candidate for office to have been "born in a log cabin"!

So caricatured are the political creatures depicted by campaigns that we are reminded of what theorists of art and literature term the "grotesque." By "grotesque" we don't mean to suggest the fantastic fusions of human and beast, like the creatures that roil in the margins of illuminated medieval manuscripts, satyrs and griffins and sirens, and in the ambivalent and at times repulsive hybrids like Quasimodo and the Frankenstein monster who haunt the worlds of the novelistic gothic (although political creatures can and do incite ambivalence, even revulsion: do we not feel alienated from the figure of the "flip-flopper"?). We mean, simply, an aesthetic of characterological extravagance and hyperbole, where both positive and negative personal attributes are portrayed and inhabited in sharp relief and sometimes with an almost cartoonish flair. That there is a measure of the grotesque in Message politics is also evident from the way Message has, with some interesting exceptions, long foregrounded and elevated "ordinariness" as a measure of appeal. It is a truism, for example, that political candidates must know how to speak in a populist tenor, which manifests itself in everything from the sourcing and deployment of "low," "folksy," and "plain" speech registers to the adoption of disarmingly "casual," purportedly status-lowering and intimacy-enhancing nicknames (Dick or Rick, not Richard; Bill, not William; Mitt, not Milton). Enlisted men rigorously looked up to and saluted Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, but every "I" liked Ike! His twice-defeated opponent in the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956, Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson II (is there even a nickname possible for Adlai?) was mercilessly taken to task for seeming to be an egghead, if a witty one, given to complex and elegantly formulated policy analyses in the way of campaign speeches.

With their spectacularly exaggerated features, grotesque figures are designed to steal attention, which brings us to the intricate relationship of candidacy and incumbency to celebrity. A celebrity becomes the collective fetish of the masses, the celebrity's fans (from the word fanatic), for whom every tidbit about the celebrity's physical, sartorial, character-ological, discursive, and other biographical features is worthwhile to their attentive collection and appreciation. Even those who are more remote from the celebrity are aware of many of these matters and have strong reactions to them, whether attraction or repulsion. There is an analogy here with the aesthetic of the political grotesque, as constituencies, like would-be fans whose passions are stoked by journalistic attention, whether of the relatively restrained sort—think Us Weekly—or the predatory voyeurism of, say, a TMZ, are encouraged to cathect over any and every aspect of a candidate's being and behavior, just as one might do for a star. Enroll in a sweepstakes, anyone, to get to have a restaurant (not White House) meal with President Obama?

Let us recall how expansive celebrity is. Mass-media performing stars of stage, big and little screens, radio, and recording have long been the prototypes of celebrity, around whose persons in private life as well as around whose performances swirl a whole secondary mass-mediatization, much of it strategically constructed and promulgated as an instrument of that celebrity itself (since celebrity translates into market share and thence into financial return). Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson in life, and now in death, are forever paragons of celebrity. Ditto, though probably with a shorter and more sociologically pallid half-life, Amy Winehouse, who is perhaps of the order of celebrity of other dead-of-drugs-at-twenty-seven singers, who are more generational icons.


Excerpted from Creatures of Politics by Michael Lempert, Michael Silverstein. Copyright © 2012 Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1. Introduction: Message is the Medium
2. Getting it Ju:::st Right
3. Addressing "The Issues"
4. Ethnoblooperology
5. Unflipping the Flop
6. The Message in Hand
7. What Goes Around...

What People are Saying About This

author of Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality - Richard Bauman

A timely, fascinating, pathbreaking book by two outstanding scholars that is sure to appeal to a wide audience.

author of The "War on Terror" Narrative: Discourse and Intertexuality in the Construction and Contes - Adam Hodges

Speaks directly to interests and concerns of linguistic anthropologists, sociolinguists, and discourse analysts, [and] the insights into American political discourse that the book provides will be of interest to a broader audience. . . . Accessible enough that it should appeal to popular audiences interested in language and politics.

Yale University - Michael Warner

This book captures better than any other the way 'messaging' works in the mediatic public sphere. The authors have developed a sophisticated analytic framework, while their lively account of the culture of presidential communication remains sensitive to both the comedy and the seriousness of its subject.

University of California, Santa Cruz - Don Brenneis

This is first-class scholarship, bringing very sophisticated and revelatory analytical perspectives to bear generatively on the stuff of presidential and electoral politics in the US.

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