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Chapter 2 Power and Authority in a Postmodern Presidency John M. Murphy, University of Georgia Dawn came grudgingly. Overcast skies and temperatures in the forties greeted presidents and protestors as they rolled out of bed and prepared for the Inauguration. Conditions worsened as the ceremony approached, with the temperature dipping into the low thirties, a nasty cold rain falling on the just and unjust alike, and southerly gusts of wind buffeting the president-elect and the chief justice as they took their places in the traditional ritual. The conditions, the New York Times reported, gave the television images a “sepia-toned look,” hearkening back to an earlier age and visually highlighting the traditional values so dear to the new president. The images of that ritual—the oath, the twenty-one-gun salute, the speech—conferred, “more than anything else,” wrote R. W. Apple Jr., “the mantle of authority and legitimacy” on a man “without an unchallenged , universally accepted title to office.”1 Apple understood the occasion. In traditional usage, a mantle was a cloak or an outer garment that signified preeminence and authority. It granted one title to the office in question, title in turn meaning a legally just cause of exclusive possession or an appellation of dignity, honor, or preeminence attached to a Power and Authority in a Postmodern Presidency | 29 person by virtue of rank, office, precedent, privilege, lands or a 5–4 Supreme Court decision. In other words, a mantle invested the bearer with the authority to exercise the powers of position symbolized by that token. In contemporary usage, mantle has become metaphor, signifying only by virtue of its similarity to or difference from other verbal tokens, its woven solidity melting into air. As metaphor, a mantle, and the authority it signifies, must now be performed through the languages and images of the cultures in which and through which it moves. Authority in turn rests less in those ranks, privileges, and lands and more on the words that accomplish the investiture of this person with that office—of George W. Bush with the presidency. In an age in which mantle has become metaphor, at best a sign of a sign of authority, how does a leader establish the legitimacy to exercise the powers of the office? That is the question I address here and I do so through a close reading of George W. Bush’s first Inaugural Address. The peculiar circumstances of Bush’s election—only the third president to lose the popular vote and win the electoral count—offer an opportunity to explore the creation of presidential authority. He could hardly have been unaware of his plight. Protestors lined the streets chanting “Hail to the Thief,” and a poll released on inauguration eve revealed that only 51 percent of Americans, a bare majority, considered his election legitimate—and that included only 19 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of African Americans.2 As the president said, “Sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country.”3 To make of himself a president, he would have to make of the continent a country. The Inaugural Address was a good place to start. Before we turn to that, however, I consider the prospects for presidential authority in a postmodern era, as my brazenly ambitious title suggests. I then explore the obstacles and resources confronting the president-elect and conclude by considering the text. The Presidency, Authority, and Postmodernity Any discussion of authority inevitably begins with Hannah Arendt. She would probably have preferred that it end with her as well. “In order to avoid misunderstanding ,” she opens her famous essay, “it might have been wiser to ask in the title: What was—and not what is—authority? For it is my contention that . . . authority has vanished from the modern world.”4 Her claim is supported not by evidence but by definition. Tracing “our concept of authority” to Plato, Arendt argues that authority must be defined in “contradistinction” 30 | John M. Murphy to force and persuasion. When “force is used,” authority has failed because coercion has taken its place; when persuasion is used, “authority is left in abeyance ” because rhetoric “presupposes equality and works through a process of argument,” two qualities she believes to be incompatible with authority. She notes: “The authoritarian relation between the one who commands and the one who obeys rests neither on common reason nor on the power of one who commands; what they have in common is...


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