The Political Denizens are pleased to present our first guest essay! In the wake of the 2012 party conventions, public discussions of the potential “candidates” for First Lady — Ann Romney and Michelle Obama — has featured their functions as a humanizing element for their husbands and their rhetorical emphasis on “family” as a warrant for their husbands’ values. But there is a strong and emerging scholarly literature on the political and rhetorical importance of first ladies that reveals additional insights on the potential importance of these women for presdients and the presidency.
Dr. Janis Edwards is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama. Her research interests include visual displays and gender in political candidates and campaigns. Along with graduate students Brittany Finley, Kyle Fox, Megan Herboth, and Andrew Stone, Janis comments on the rhetorical presentation of Republican presidential candidate spouses and their potential political impact. These insights should come in handy as we observe, compare and contrast the performances of Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama in the weeks to come.
As has been the case for many years, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign produced a biographical film to introduce the candidate to the American public, who traditionally start paying attention in earnest to general election campaigns right around Labor Day. The video was a dramatically produced and emotionally moving portrait of a candidate who sought that night to present an image of himself as a warm, compassionate human being that has eluded him throughout his career in presidential campaigning. Inexplicably, the convention planners decided to present this potentially influential reframing of their candidate before the broadcast TV networks started their live coverage at 10 PM Eastern/9 Central Time. Instead, the “big night” led off with an ad-libbed piece of awkward performance art that has become a viral internet punchline and a big regret point for some Republican insiders. Clint Eastwood’s speech featured a cranky, snarky and rambling interview of an empty chair, representing President Barack Obama. Looking back on the fiasco, I’m starting to find the moment an oddly apt microcosm of the 2012 Republican National Convention as a whole: A potentially well-meaning but artificial diatribe against an opponent and actions that don’t actually exist. And this diatribe, while not a new phenomenon, is being executed in a way that may be a watershed moment for the mass-mediated propagation of untruth in American politics.
According to the White House website, President Obama had “no public schedule” yesterday. However, this didn’t stop the President from making a high-profile St. Patrick’s Day visit to a public establishment — specifically, the Dubliner Restaurant and Pub, a bar in Washington featuring basketball on TV and Guinness on tap. Joined by his distant Irish cousin from Moneygall, Ireland (where Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandfather called home), Obama enjoyed a pint and the well-wishes of the patrons.
Of course, this was no spontaneous drop-in — impossible when you have a Secret Service detail who must secure any visit location at least days in advance. And of course this was a calculated election year photo opportunity. What’s interesting about this particular event is that it is not the first “spontaneous” presidential beer run, press corps in tow… just ask the regulars of the Eire Pub in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, who enjoyed a presidential pint visit in 1983 by a pioneer of contemporary televisual politics.
Time and time again, I speak to my students about the importance of the perception of power to the institution of the Presidency. The Founders of the United States never intended for Presidents or the overall institution of the Presidency to have the power and influence that is seen in the modern presidency. Presidents and leaders in Congress have to manipulate perceptions of power as they approach election season. Sometimes when I engage in discussions on these issues I talk to students about “juice.”
Note: The views of the Political Denizens, their guest contributors and visitors do not reflect those of Augustana College. The Denizens are thankful to the College for providing them with resources and an outlet for their observations and commentary in the spirit of academic freedom and free public speech.