Tuesday, March 08, 2005

# Posted 1:46 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

REAGAN LIT REVIEW/CURE FOR INSOMNIA: This post is intended either for those who have a passionate interest in our 40th president or those who want to read something guaranteed to put them to sleep. What follows is a freshly-written excerpt from my dissertation that reviews a number of prominent scholars' explanation of what made Reagan a "great communicator":

Of all of the presidents elected during the Cold War, Ronald Reagan stands alone as the president best known for his powers of persuasion. Both his harshest critics and his most passionate supporters referred to him as “The Great Communicator”. Among scholars as well, both critical and supportive, the same consensus prevails. Although there is no single, dominant explanation for what made Reagan such a great communicator, scholars have identified numerous factors that contributed to his rhetorical success. The first set of factors is stylistic. According to Paul Erickson, who describes Reagan “the most persuasive political speaker of our time”, Reagan had mastered the art of matching his tone of voice to his rhetorical purpose. To that effect, Erickson cites the words of a journalist who observed, just before Reagan’s first inauguration as president, that his voice “recedes at the right moments, turning mellow at points of intensity. When it wishes to be most persuasive, it hovers barely above a whisper so as to win you over by intimacy, if not by substance.”[1]

According to Kurt Ritter and David Henry, co-authors of Ronald Reagan: The Great Communicator, “Reagan had ‘a wonderful, velvety voice.’ When he spoke, he evoked concern rather than alarm. He reassured his audience. He did not appear to be appealing to the audiences emotions as much as he seemed to be sharing his feelings with his listeners.”[2] Both of these observations suggest that Reagan’s comforting voice enabled him to play on his audience’s emotions in a manner that overcame their rational objections to the Reagan administration’s programs and initiatives. Although there was nothing literally deceptive about the tone and timbre of the President’s voice, Erickson, Ritter and Henry argue that such traits were integral to making the worse argument seem the better.

Reagan’s presentation of himself as a common man complemented his comforting and intimate tone of voice. Whereas his predecessors often separated themselves from their constituents by describing the president as a heroic individual apart from or above the masses, Reagan identified himself with the American people. According to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “Reagan’s rhetoric is self-effacing; the rhetoric of Carter, Nixon and Johnson often bordered on self-promotion or self-indulgence.”[3]

Jamieson argues that Reagan’s self-effacing style dramatically heightened his persuasiveness because it was so well-suited to the televised medium that has become the most important avenue of communication between the president and the electorate. In contrast to the printed media, “the broadcast media enable a president to speak to us as individuals in the privacy of our homes.” Although FDR demonstrated that the president’s voice alone can establish a remarkable degree of intimacy between a president and his listeners, the combination of sound with living images places an even greater premium on the establishment of a comforting persona. According to Jamieson, Reagan created such a persona by mastering the art of “self-disclosure”, i.e. the revelation of private emotions to a conversation partner. Jamieson writes that “Self-disclosure is not meant to be trumpeted to an assembled throng but spoken softly to intimates.” [4] In The Primetime Presidency of Ronald Reagan, Robert Denton observes that throughout American history, the most influential leaders have been those who “master the communications technology of their age.” Although by traditional standards Reagan was in no way eloquent, his warmth and sincerity, perfected over the course of decades as an actor and announcer, made Reagan into the great communicator of the television era.[5]

[1] Erickson 1985:14. The quotation is from Time, 5 Jan 1981.
[2] Ritter & Henry 1992:100.
[3] Jamieson 1988:156-64.
[4] Jamieson 1988:61-66, 182-94. Jamieson adds that Reagan was also remarkable because he had a single, consistent persona on- and off-screen, scripted and unscripted. In contrast, his predecessors adjusted their self-presentation in order to adapt to the circumstances of the moment. (Jamieson 1988:176-82)
[5] Denton 1988:1-3.

I hope you found this excerpt to be either interesting or medicinal. Tomorrow's installment raises the partisan temperature.
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