Rhetorical Negotiation and the Presidential Press Conference

Rhetorical Negotiation and the Presidential Press Conference

Roderick P. Hart (University of Texas – Austin, USA) and Joshua M. Scacco (University of Texas – Austin, USA)
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5003-9.ch004
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This chapter traces the language of presidential press conferences, keying particularly on three axes said to distinguish journalistic and presidential behavior: (1) the interrogatory-protective binary, (2) the clinical-promotional binary, and (3) the grounded-transcendent binary. While theory suggests that such differences exist, empirical studies have not yet confirmed them. The present study does so, showing that reporters and presidents use language quite different from one another and that those distinctions remain constant over time. The press conference presents unique generic opportunities (and challenges) for the president. That is also true for reporters but in much different ways. The chapter also traces how the press conference has tipped increasingly in the president’s favor over time, especially when matters of foreign policy have been discussed.
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The presidential press conference shows what happens when institutions collide. The presidency vs. the mass media, the First Estate vs. the Fourth Estate, the baiters vs. the baited, the insiders vs. the outsiders, the power-holders vs. those suspicious of power – all come together in the presidential press conference. Franklin Roosevelt liked these affairs, Harry Truman did not, but Jack Kennedy liked them well enough to have them televised. If the choice were theirs, however, most presidents would forego these ritualistic grillings. Lyndon Johnson had to be “gimmicked” into participating in them by his press secretary (Powell, Reedy, & terHorst, 1983), while Dwight Eisenhower bravely declared, “I will mount the weekly cross and let you [the press] drive the nails” (quoted in Kumar, 2003a, p. 221). Journalists, too, are often unhappy with such events. “Too many of the questions are lobbed setups and blooper balls,” declared Des Moines Register reporter Clark Mollenhoff (quoted in Kernell, 2007, p. 96), a statement reflecting popular laments about reporters who fail to stand up to the president. Still, the press conference persists.

The press conference is a preeminently institutional affair but it is also a human thing. The ever-cautious Richard Nixon particularly disliked them so he moved them to prime-time in an attempt to talk over the heads of the press. Dan Rather of CBS News once tried to beard Mr. Nixon for such manipulations. Rather introduced himself during a March, 1974 press conference and was immediately applauded by his colleagues. Nixon (1974, March 19) then asked, “Are you running for something?” To this, Rather replied, “No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?” Although such sharp exchanges are comparatively rare, an undertone of disquiet is often present, with the president, attempting to answer the questions he wished had been asked and the press trying to get a response to the query actually posed.

This chapter examines the presidential press conference to tease out its institutional complexities. Oddly enough, while considerable historical commentary exists about the press conference, very little textual work has been done. That is strange since the press conference is, first and foremost, a rhetorical event featuring thrust and parry. To examine how the press and the president “language” their relationship is to discover not only what they say but also what they think but cannot say. Why these tensions? Why such holding-back? We attempt to answer such questions here.

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