Presidential politics: The making of a political mastermind

Kathleen Jamieson takes a hard look at the power of speech and rhetoric in the race for the presidency.

An almost full-house in Hendricks Chapel watched former president Bill Clinton declare once again on the projector screen that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” A second later the audience burst into laughter as the word TRANSLATION flashed onto the screen along with, “Bill Clinton does not define sexual ‘contact’ as relations.”

Photo: Keith Edelman
Kathleen Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, spoke Tuesday at Hendricks Chapel.

Kathleen Jamieson, a nationally recognized expert on political speech, continued to deftly cut through the carefully worded statements of presidents over the course of U.S. history and translated them for her audience Tuesday evening. In a lecture entitled “Finding the Hidden Meanings in Presidential Messages,” Jamison focused on how the speeches a president makes ultimately define the presidency and the president himself.

“Most people don’t focus on speech-making in the presidency,” Jamieson said. “There are two types of hidden meanings in speech-making: the meaning hidden from the public by the rhetoric, and the hidden meaning in the rhetoric that ultimately becomes apparent and potentially revealing.”

Jamieson was the second speaker in the annual University Lectures series. An Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communications, and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Jamieson is the author or co-author of over 15 books. The most recent, The Obama Victory: How Media, Money and Messages Shaped the 2008 Election, was released last summer. The Communication and Rhetorical Studies department chose to invite Jamieson as part of their year-long centennial celebration.

Although Jamieson examined presidential statements and speeches made by several presidents in the last century, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and John F. Kennedy, she focused on the 2008 campaign, and the oratory skills of President Barack Obama. 

“Obama was elected because of his capacity to deliver a speech,” she said. “In contemporary politics, his is actually a very unique case…. He was credentialed by his speeches, not his legislative experience.”

Pointing out that she was most likely speaking to a crowd of Obama supporters, Jamieson proceeded to both commend Obama for his achievements, while simultaneously revealing him as a political speech mastermind, capable of turning any phrase to his advantage. However, she said that Obama’s speeches and power as an orator ultimately may have hurt him as president.

“Obama’s candidacy was made out of two speeches: his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and ‘A More Perfect Union,’ [a speech on race]. What do we make of a candidate made up completely of rhetoric? We create completely unrealistic expectations about the capacity of rhetoric once the candidate becomes president. Expectations that are set are almost impossible to be satisfied,” she said.

She added that the way candidates run their campaigns can make it more difficult for them to govern once they are elected to office. Candidates are forced to campaign in a way that raises the public’s expectations, but does not allow them to see the costs, tradeoffs, and consequences that come along with implementing policy changes promised during a campaign, Jamieson said. 

“Can we find a way to campaign that allows the candidate to let people see the costs, show the likely options, and, in doing so, still win?” Jamieson asked.

A transparent candidate will not win without an American public willing to listen to a more complicated, and more unpleasant reality from its politicians on the campaign trail, she said.

While a few students said that Jamieson’s speech was “dry,” others said they thought Jamieson was an excellent choice for the University Lectures series.

David Kaplan, a junior political science and broadcast journalism student, said he was unfamiliar with Jamieson before coming to the speech, but felt that her presentation revealed the true complexity of U.S. politics. 

“In politics, we think they’re all conniving and liars, but there’s really a lot more to it," Kaplan said. "There’s a lot of effort that candidates go through to assure citizens that the government is doing the best thing for them, but there’s also underhanded ways that they do that to get elected. Ultimately the primary goal of most politicians is to get elected and then get re-elected.”

Averin Collier, a communication and rhetorical studies junior, agreed that the speech was illuminating on American politics.

“I thought it was very engaging. It was great to have a different outlook on presidential campaigns. It gave me a lot of things I can look for in the 2012 election,” Collier said.

“Rhetoric matters,” Jamieson said decisively as she concluded the lecture. 

“It can reveal the central identity of a presidency and a president. It can alter the conception of who we, as a country, are.” 

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.