The Performative Presidency: Crisis and Resurrection during the Clinton Years. By James L. Mast. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 198 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 195–196, March 2014
How to Cite
Kanter, J. (2014), The Performative Presidency: Crisis and Resurrection during the Clinton Years. By James L. Mast. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 198 pp. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 44: 195–196. doi: 10.1111/psq.12106
- Issue published online: 26 JAN 2014
- Article first published online: 26 JAN 2014
In The Performative Presidency, Jason L. Mast discusses two presidents. The first is a likeable fellow, “empathetic, inclusive, and brilliant,” who “seemed to spring naturally from a Horatio Alger story” (p. 43). The second is an antidemocratic villain, verbally evasive, sexually promiscuous, with a chronically slippery relationship to the truth. Both are named Bill Clinton.
Mast's book traces the waxing and waning influence of these two interpretations of Clinton's character across his first presidential campaign and through both terms of his administration. In the process, it illuminates much about how Americans make cultural meaning out of political performances.
Mast frames the story of the two Clintons with twin introductions, the first theoretical and the second historical. The historical framework is wonderfully illuminating, tracing the formation of what Mast calls “conditions of defusion” (p. 18) in American political culture from the turn of the twentieth century to the 1990s. Defusion refers simultaneously to the dissolution of a presumed-to-be unified American public, the dissemination of the interpretive power of the presidency across diverse technologies, and the separation of the office of the president from the officeholder. Mast identifies myriad factors in the formation of these conditions, including the decreased dominance of Congress and political parties in the American political sphere of the 1890s, the expanded interpretive authority of reporters, and the rise of televised campaigning. The factors also include historically idiosyncratic events, most notably Watergate, which opened the most radical possibilities for defusion of the president's office from its occupant.
The rest of the book deftly tracks key events in the making of cultural meaning around Clinton's presidency. Mast identifies the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 as the watershed moment of Clinton's first term, a moment of symbolic inversion in which the president “re-fused” with his sacred office (p. 134). The analysis marshals dramatic and decisive evidence for this shift in meaning, including an evaluation of two press conferences held 24 hours apart—the first before and the second after the bombing—with breathtakingly different media and public responses.
Mast also skillfully illuminates the ways in which the meanings of Clinton's performances were contingent upon those of his political adversaries, most notably President George H. W. Bush, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and special prosecutor Ken Starr. In particular, the book's extended treatment of Gingrich's performances in relation to Clinton's before and during the Monica Lewinsky scandal offers the most persuasive explanation to date for why Clinton's impeachment failed to adversely affect his popularity.
Mast notes early in the book that the implications of the study reach well beyond the Clinton years, and this is clearly the case. His treatment of Clinton's first presidential campaign, for example, provides a useful model for analyzing the efficacy of any set of campaign performances, and his treatment of the Oklahoma City bombing has clear parallel applications for other presidential crises. (In particular, although Mast does not draw attention to it, the parallels between Clinton's symbolic inversion here and President George W. Bush's around the September 11 attacks are unmistakable.)
The book's biggest shortcoming is its theoretical framework. Mast situates the study within a recent performative turn in sociology and more specifically within an even newer area of inquiry called cultural pragmatics. The emergence of a subfield within sociology that aims to examine “how occurrences are transformed into culturally meaningful events” (p. 14) will strike those in other disciplines, many of which have been focused on such transformations for quite some time, as surprising. Mast cites some of the influential anthropologists and communication scholars who developed the broader application of a performance lens across cultures in the 1960s and 1970s. But it is unlikely that the idea that “political power operates through performative power” (p. 7) would have sounded new, even to them. The six elements of cultural performance that Mast identifies within cultural pragmatics, for example, do not sound markedly different from those identified by rhetorician Kenneth Burke in his Grammar of Motives (Prentice-Hall, 1945) even earlier in the century. In addition, the word performative has come to have very specific meanings in cultural scholarship since the 1980s—meanings that explicitly illuminate the relationships between politics and performance and yet do not appear to inform this study. Because the theoretical framework of the study fails to take fully into account the complex genealogy of these theories, it cannot further illuminate our understanding of performative power.
The Performative Presidency provides valuable insight into American politics during the Clinton years and beyond. One thread of Mast's argument that warrants further exploration is the application of the concept of defusion to the American public, which has become “a system of interlocking and overlapping yet differentiated publics” (p. 18). Here, Mast offers no specific examples of distinct public formations or of how these publics differed in their responses to presidential performances in the Clinton years. More attention to this complex transformation is clearly needed if we are to fully understand the efficacy of political performances.