Featured Author: Vanessa B. Beasley

PSQ prides itself on publishing scholarship created by the best and brightest in their respective fields. To highlight some of these exciting contributors and provide an in-depth look at the broader work our authors do, we bring you our Featured Author interview series.


Beasley_Vanessa_smcropOur June 2014 featured author is Vanessa B. Beasley, an associate professor of communication studies and director of the Program in American Studies at Vanderbilt University, whose research primarily concerns the cultural functions of U.S. presidential rhetoric. She is the author of two books: You, The People: American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric (2003) and Who Belongs in America? Presidents, Rhetoric, and Immigration (2006), both published by Texas A&M University Press. To contact Professor Beasley or find out more about her work, visit her faculty webpage or email her at vanessa.b.beasley@vanderbilt.edu.

Q: What initially sparked your interest in the study of the presidential rhetoric?

A:  I was an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University during the Reagan presidency, and the more I learned in upper-division Communication Studies classes about how to analyze rhetoric and its role in democratic societies, the more I could see the need for analysis of the “stagecraft” of the presidency. This was around the same time Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Roderick P. Hart, among other scholars, were publishing important books on presidential rhetoric. It made sense for me to go to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where they were both on the faculty at the time, to pursue such questions.

Q: What are the key questions in the study of the president’s rhetoric?

A: Communication scholars interested in presidential rhetoric take diverse approaches. For the sake of brevity, I will identify just four of them and their key questions.

Some scholars ask historical questions about speeches themselves, going to the archives, for example, to see what we can learn from comparing multiple drafts of a speech or other forms of public commentary. These comparisons can reveal a great deal about a president’s goals for a single speech or campaign, and they can also tell us a lot about the interactions between and among presidents and their staff members, including but not limited to speechwriters, during the creative process.

Other scholars ask historical questions as well, but their focus tends to engage broader and often comparative themes, usually related to public policy. What do we know about the history of presidential war rhetoric, for example? What about the major addresses on the U.S. economy; what can we learn by comparing FDR’s speeches during the Great Depression and Obama’s economic rhetoric during and after 2008, for instance? Likewise, where and when are there major disruptions and continuities in presidents’ foreign policy rhetoric concerning specific nations?

Third, there is interest in generic analysis of presidential rhetoric, meaning the ways in which we can identify major forms and types of presidential rhetoric and how they recur across time. What makes an inaugural an inaugural? What do all veto messages seem to have in common? For the record, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson wrote the book on such matters, actually. It is Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words, published by University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Last, some of us ask questions about the cultural functions of presidential rhetoric. Most of my own research is in this category. How have presidents defined national identity, for example? Given the president’s role as what Mary Stuckey has called “interpreter-in-chief” for the American people, how have individual presidents commented on changing social norms? Likewise, how do presidents create and, indeed, preside over official forms of public memory and commemoration? What do they ask us to remember as a nation…and what do they suggest we forget?

Q: What kind of response do you hope your work elicits from your readers? Ideally, what kind of critical thought do you hope your article inspires?

A:  I would like for my scholarship to make readers think about the presidency itself in new and perhaps even counterintuitive ways.  Our culture tends to promote an individual-centered, “great man” (sic) approach to the executive office, and of course individual office holders can and do make a difference during their tenure.  But it is also true that the institution itself is constituted via its own history of practices, including those practices related to public communication.  Thus institutional factors, such as systemic constraints and patterns of symbol use, can operate in ways that may be less visible than the decisions or preferences of one person or party.  But they still matter.  Presidential rhetoric can be understood as an index of these factors, a public record of what happens when individual actors try to leave their mark on an institution even as the institution itself proscribes much of what they can and cannot say in public.