Date of Graduation

8-2009

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Public Policy (PhD)

Degree Level

Graduate

Department

Political Science

Advisor

Brinck Kerr

Committee Member

Andrew Dowdle

Second Committee Member

Jefferson D. Miller

Keywords

Philosophy, religion and theology; Social sciences; George W. Bush; Content analysis; Lyndon B. Johnson; Presidential communication/rhetoric; Presidential leadership; Presidential studies; Public policy; War policy

Abstract

How presidents talk us into war merges the study of problem definition in public policy with the study of rhetoric in communications. Using both qualitative and quantitative methods, this research analyzes the key words used by two presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush, to persuade us into escalating a war in Vietnam and engaging in a pre-emptive war in Iraq, respectively. The findings indicate that presidents repeat words that are patriotic, emotive, metaphorical, symbolic and religious, tapping into American themes of Manifest Destiny and even predicting dire outcomes if we do not accept their definitions of the dangers and rewards involved in going to war. The study also finds that presidents develop a sustaining narrative that highlights what problem definition literature calls a "causal story," which identifies the harm done, describes its cause, assigns moral blame and claims government is responsible for the remedy (Stone 1989). This research indicates that Johnson used far less antithetical, religious and repetitive language than did Bush, in some cases strikingly so. This work relies upon the literature on problem definition, presidential rhetoric and presidential leadership as a backdrop for studying the major speeches of these two presidents prior to their escalation or initiation of war. It employs content analysis using the computerized program, NVivo 7. The study concludes that while we may not be able to measure the degree to which various audiences are persuaded by presidential rhetoric, we can see that presidents, who wield the powerful bully pulpit, carefully choose their words and repeat them often to afford themselves maximum persuadability with their audiences as they try to talk us into war. Such language also appears designed to quell dissent and to enlarge the authority of the president.

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