Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency. By Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012. 263 pp.
Article first published online: 26 JAN 2014
© 2014 Center for the Study of the Presidency
Presidential Studies Quarterly
Special Issue: Symposium on Historical Research
Volume 44, Issue 1, pages 193–195, March 2014
How to Cite
Oddo, J. (2014), Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency. By Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012. 263 pp. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 44: 193–195. doi: 10.1111/psq.12105
- Issue published online: 26 JAN 2014
- Article first published online: 26 JAN 2014
In Creatures of Politics, linguistic anthropologists Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein seek to examine how American presidential candidates convey message. The authors do not mean the actual substance of campaign talk, nor the issues on which a candidate runs, but the often choreographed symbolism that suggests a candidate's moral character. A message, then, is a kind of personal brand or “biographical aura” (p. 100) that one associates with candidates, depending on the constellation of signs that surround and emanate from them. These signs include not only the candidates' words but also how the candidates (mis)pronounce those words, pause among them, and manage (or fail to manage) gestures, clothing, and facial expressions. In addition, each candidate's message is structured by other political actors—spokespersons, agents from opposing campaigns, pundits, and reporters—all of whom seek to use a host of semiotic resources in order to craft the candidate's characterological essence.
In their wide-ranging analysis of message, Lempert and Silverstein examine speeches, debates, ads, interviews, and news narratives. The result is an often-fascinating study of contemporary electoral politics and journalism. First, in Chapter 2, the authors discuss the institutional necessity of messaging in political campaigns. Analyzing the 2008 presidential contest, they show that even candidates who wish to rise above “politics as usual” (p. 42) inevitably brand themselves and their opponents in melodramatic terms. Chapter 3 investigates how a candidate's brand is related to whether and how that candidate appears to be addressing “the issues” (p. 105). In a revealing study of the 2008 Democratic primaries, the authors examine how politicians and journalists alike comanufactured Hillary Clinton's brand, creating the impression that she had equivocated on an issue and implicating her as an inconsistent candidate.
In Chapter 4, the authors tackle what they term “ethno-blooperology” (p. 122), the way innocent and not-so-innocent gaffes come to be seen as revelatory of a candidate's true character. They show, for instance, how Howard Dean's infamous 2003 scream was interpreted by commentators as evidence of his interior instability—and unelectability. Chapter 5 focuses on the semiotic processes by which a candidate is identified as a “flip-flopper” (p. 145). Examining the case of John Kerry in 2004, the authors illustrate that both flip-flopping and resoluteness are constructed across a series of communicative events, as journalists highlight apparent inconsistencies in candidates' speeches and as candidates attempt to answer their critics by signaling conviction in their subsequent public performances. Then, in Chapter 6, the authors consider the relationship between message and body language. In a meticulous study of Barack Obama's hand gestures, they argue that body language indirectly contributes to a candidate's brand, especially as nonverbal signs are seized upon by pundits as proof of character type.
All of these chapters contain fresh insights about campaign politics, especially the reciprocal maneuverings of candidates and news media elites. Still, the book is not without shortcomings. The work has been cobbled together from the authors' past presentations and essays. Consequently, there is some unnecessary repetition across chapters, and the finished product is not entirely coherent. Chapter 7, in particular, seems misplaced. This chapter focuses on a bill-signing ceremony in which President Richard Nixon made some impromptu—and sexist—remarks. The authors provide an interesting analysis of how Nixon's words were ultimately recontextualized in a news story that endowed him with “characterological ugliness” (p. 218). However, this chapter about a 1973 law-making ceremony seems strange in a volume that otherwise deals with election campaigns since 2004. Oddly, Chapter 7 also serves as the final chapter in the book. There is no concluding chapter that summarizes and develops key claims, so the volume ends rather abruptly without addressing the broader significance of its findings.
By failing to include a more conventional final chapter, perhaps the authors also missed an opportunity to assess critically how messaging and mediatization might be affecting the health of our political system. To be clear, the authors claim that the goal of the book is not to criticize those political institutions that value style over substance “but to detail … the life of our political communicators at work and the peculiar conditions under which they now must labor” (p. 57). Lempert and Silverstein certainly provide rich detail in their account of contemporary political communication. Yet their insistence that they are not interested in criticizing the current state of affairs in electoral politics is belied by the fact that they make frequent use of sardonic parenthetical comments—comments that are apparently meant to poke fun at candidates and the puerility of campaign rhetoric. The authors evidently disapprove of the empty theatrics and the commodification of presidential contenders. But their disapproval manifests itself only in the form of jokes. Ultimately, readers may find themselves yearning for fewer witticisms and a more sustained critique of messaging in American democracy.
Whatever its limitations, though, this book is very much worth reading. Lempert and Silverstein are not the first to argue that, in our age of political marketing, brand and biography trump all else. But very few scholars can match their detailed analysis of political and media discourse. The authors illuminate the subtle, multimodal, and intertextual mechanisms by which messages are constructed. Those who read their work will learn much about the semiotics of presidential campaigns as well as the cultural expectations that regulate and naturalize our electoral character contests.