- Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity
We commonly use certain phrases to describe things we think are very unlikely to happen, phrases such as "when pigs fly," "when hell freezes over," or "when political scientists see value in rhetorical studies." That last one is just plain silly, but I invoke some degree of poetic license here to underscore the remarkable work Mary E. Stuckey has done in her book Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity. Here Stuckey uses textual evidence to argue for a larger model of the symbolic accommodation of previously excluded groups of citizens into presidential discourse over time. For readers of Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Stuckey's choices in this book are noteworthy for two reasons, one methodological and one conceptual.
First, Stuckey's methodological choices reflect her somewhat unique disciplinary position. Trained as a political scientist but having taught in both [End Page 178] political science and communication departments, she has firsthand knowledge of the epistemological and otherwise operational orthodoxies that still divide the social scientific and humanistic traditions within political communication. Indeed, a prolific scholar, Stuckey has literally written (well, edited) a book that addressed such matters. It should therefore be no surprise that Defining Americans is further evidence of her boldness as a boundary-spanner. She uses speeches as her unit of analysis, a methodological choice familiar to communication scholars but not necessarily unproblematic to political scientists, in order to chart the discursive mechanisms through which previously excluded citizens become rendered "visible" in certain presidents' rhetoric, with the assumption being that the absence and/or presence of these groups in presidential discourse also indicates something about their gradual inclusion into the democratic demos. For many political scientists, modeling is one of the highest goals of scholarship, and Stuckey repeatedly talks about her findings in terms of how they demonstrate that a "process" and/or a "considerable, albeit uneven, linear progression" is clearly evident as groups slowly become "visible" in presidential rhetoric. In the introduction, for example, she suggests that this process may even have discrete and thus somewhat predictable steps (5–6).
Stuckey offers evidentiary support for this process through her presentation of "snapshots" of distinct periods of U.S. history, periods captured in seven chapters that highlight the presidencies of Andrew Jackson, Millard Fillmore/Franklin Pierce/James Buchanan (grouped together in the discussion of the 1850s in chapter 2); Grover Cleveland; Woodrow Wilson; Franklin D. Roosevelt; Dwight Eisenhower; and George H. W. Bush. She also discusses Bill Clinton's rhetoric in the conclusion. Each chapter is rich with historical context, as Stuckey pays explicit attention to each president's rhetorical situation as he attempted to protect his key constituents during times of political and demographic change. For Stuckey, then, a primary function of presidential rhetoric is coalition maintenance, and as she rightly suggests, the need to define Americans in ways that are politically expedient does not belong solely to the presidents studied here. In fact, it was there from the beginning. The problem, of course, is that this expediency is itself what presidential discourse especially works hardest to hide, often at the expense of the disenfranchised. As Stuckey writes in reference to Thomas Jefferson, the "ideological creation of a specific kind of citizen was represented not as an actual construction, a political fiction, but as the result of a historical inevitability" (34).
And so it has been. Although we cannot expect that even the more recent, allegedly postmodern presidents would ever come close to suggesting that "American-ness" was a political fiction, Stuckey's chapters reveal the nuances that this construction has taken on over time as presidents have captured the [End Page 179] hegemonic motifs of their day into their discursive efforts to shape that day. Her comparative perspective is thus appropriate to her question, even if at times it is not entirely clear how systematic her textual analysis is between or even among presidents. Throughout the seven internal chapters, for example, she often makes claims about the contours of this or that president's...