Friday, September 26, 2008


One of John McCain's early TV ads, which started showing on 5 August 2008, is called "Broken."

For students of rhetoric and of the presidency, it is a curious ad, since McCain is a Senator running for President, and yet the illustration that we see when we hear the voiceover telling us that "Washington is broken . . . " is the floor of Congress. By his direct and indirect disavowals of George Bush, McCain seems to convey that it is the presidency that has been broken, by George Bush -- and yet the ad invokes the old cultural cliche of a gridlocked Congress.

Is McCain arguing that presidential action can enhance Congressional deliberation, or that, since all hope for Congressional deliberation is lost, only a president can step forward and offer decisive leadership in place of deliberation? It is not an idle question, since this is exactly the question at the center of the idea of the rhetorical presidency advanced by Jeffrey Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). Tulis, whose thesis is much debated among political scientists, historians, and rhetorical scholars, argues that beginning with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, presidents have increasingly found various means of pre-empting Congressional deliberation by direct popular appeals to the people, resulting in plebiscitary government.

For a recent discussion of the rhetorical presidency, see David Cheshier, Amateur Humanist (thanks to Hillary Jones for a tip about this link).

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