Tom Wicker Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Presidency, the Press, and
the Cold War: Conversation with Tom Wicker; 11/3/83 by Harry Kreisler

Page 2 of 6

Presidential Leadership and Rhetoric

As a way of cutting into this problem of the inadequacy of our public education on these problems, let me ask you about the language of the discourse. You're a novelist, and of course you write a lot, and if you look at the language that our leaders use in talking about pivotal turns in international affairs: a "window of vulnerability"; the "loss of Iran"; most recently, à la Reagan and George Lucas, "the empire of evil"; and of course, the "Japanese threat," and so on. What is it about this language? Are our political leaders manipulating public opinion? Or is it just a product of the electoral process, the give and take of trying to get in when you're out, and so on -- defining an image that's going to give you the votes, that's going to resonate in our cultural experience, as opposed to one that really elucidates what's going on in the world?

Well I think it's a little bit of both. I'm not clear that President Reagan, for example, sent the marines to Lebanon in order to get votes; quite the opposite. But once he has the marines there, he's still confronted with a necessity (on the assumption that he runs again) of getting votes, and obviously, having marines in Lebanon is going to affect that one way or another. So the necessity for President Reagan, having sent the marines there for whatever his purposes were, is somehow to put a good face on that, and to persuade as many people as possible that that's what he should have done and that that's a good policy. So, I think you're quite right that phrases like the ones you used do tend to be manipulative phrases, and they tend to be all the more effective in this day of modern communications when so often what a good American citizen may know about Lebanon really is about all that he heard from the president on TV and what he may read in his local newspaper, which would not, in all cases, be adequate.

So those phrases then take on a particular cutting edge, but they take on a particular cutting edge because communications are so instantaneous and effective today. I'm not sure that the impulse on the part of the president involved is any different from the impulse on the part of a president in the 19th century to carry public opinion along with him. He had to do it in different ways because he couldn't go on television; he had to speak to you after dinner. But all presidents have been confronted with that necessity to maintain, if not to create, public support for what they needed to do. And the best political figures in that sense used communications very astutely. I think President Reagan is among the better ones that I've seen in using communications, as far as set-piece speeches are concerned. He does that very well.

Why is he so good? What is it about the way he communicates that has such an impact?

In the first place, he's quite smooth. You're not aware, as you might have been with Mr. Nixon, for example, of the perspiration or the five o'clock shadow. You're not aware, as with President Carter, of little annoying mannerisms like the quick flashy smile.

Is it just his experience in the movies?

It's experience in the movies. I heard a good story about him, that when he was being prepped for his debates with Carter, somebody said to him, "Mr. President, any time there's an extraneous noise in the studio, you look up at the sound and it's very distracting." And he said, "What do you want me to do?" And they said, "When you hear a noise, look down." And as a good movie actor, he took the direction and from then on he always looked down and it solved the problem for him. So he's very good at the techniques.

But I think also there's something else about President Reagan, and this is noticeable when he's on the stump, so to speak, campaigning and not with a prepared text in front of him. I think he speaks very much in an American idiom. I don't know how to go beyond that particularly, but I think that presidents of Rotary Clubs, faithful members of Lions' Clubs, people who take part in civic activities and so forth, understand Reagan's medium somehow. He speaks in their terms. It's not lofty, Ivy League terms. It's something that he gets across to them. He does that in set-piece speeches, and he does it in extemporaneous speeches.

He's also remarkable, in my experience, in that he seems more willing to use straight-out raw emotionalism than any president I have seen. At one point in his address on Lebanon and on Granada, he was very near tears. And he's been seen to be in tears on occasion, and I think that's because, to do the man justice, he is deeply moved by the idea of marines being killed in Beirut and so forth. We Americans, whatever we may like to pretend, are deeply emotional people, and I think people respond to that emotionalism on his part. So he has his ways of manipulating people.

President Kennedy was very different. President Kennedy, I think, did not make particularly good set-piece speeches, although one or two of them are memorable in text. But he was a master with his news conferences, a technique at which Reagan is not very good. Reagan appears hesitant, ill-informed. President Kennedy, the first president to use live television news conferences, was very incisive, emphatic, appeared to be on top of everything, very well briefed, witty, the very picture of a modern young executive on top of things. And I think, in that way, he manipulated people very well.

Next page: Kennedy's Hopes and Johnson's Tragedy

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