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The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush Hardcover – Bargain Price, June 25, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Repackaging presidential history for our age of "spin," Cornog's lively if reductionist work argues that it's "the battle of stories, not the debate on issues, that determines how Americans respond to a presidential contender." In making this argument, Cornog, associate dean at Columbia's journalism school and author of Hats in the Ring, a campaign history, touches on the roles of candidates, the public, the press and historians in crafting (or debunking) images and reputations. No reader will put down the book without greater appreciation of the role of tales, both tall and true, in our public history. To his credit, Cornog only occasionally drops into cynicism, as when he says that the role of images shows "the relative unimportance of truth." But sometimes he succumbs to melodrama, as in his grandiose conclusion: "The future of the nation, and the world, depends upon the abilities of American citizens to choose the right stories." And devoting a full chapter only to George W. Bush seems a ploy for media attention in this election year. More seriously, Cornog shortchanges such other important historical factors as presidential actions and national power. In sum, this is a pleasant but not weighty work.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Evan Cornog is the associate dean for policy and planning at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He was educated at Harvard and Columbia and has taught American history at Columbia, CUNY, and Lafayette College. He also worked as press secretary for former Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York City. Cornog is the author of The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828 and coauthor of Hats in the Ring: An Illustrated History of American Presidential Campaigns. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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It is well worth-reading.
Cornog notes that the truth is not always relevant to the story. For instance, the Washington-and-the-cherry-tree story is apocryphal. Likewise GW Bush's inflating of Saddam Hussein's pursuit of the weapons of mass destruction. He points out that there's a cycle to the story, that it's sent to the press, which itself behaves as an actor and chorus in interpreting and relaying it to the public, and then as an audience as well, by reacting and allowing the story to return to its source for reinterpretation and re-dissemination.
In some cases, the story becomes part of the president's "next life." Former presidents or even non-presidential statesmen, in publishing their memoirs, have tried to change the focus or the blame on some of the more negative stories about them by attempting to put them in a different context. In some cases the attempt was successful (George Washington and the tree didn't even come out until after he had died, but it's so central to the myth that it was accepted), others not so much (Nixon convincing himself that the decision to invade Cambodia was right by repeatedly watching "Patton", as noted in H. R. Haldeman's memoir).
It's even more clear in the light of the 2004 Presidential campaign that the election will likely be decided by the power of the stories told about the candidates, and how they react (or fail to react) to those stories. There have already been several examples of this: Jimmy Carter's "outsider" story played well the first time, but couldn't be used in 1980 and his 1979 "malaise" speech, combined with Reagan's "There you go again" in the debate doomed him to lose to Reagan. Again, it didn't even matter that Carter's statement that generated Reagan's response was actually correct. "There you go again" became the story. In 1984, Walter Mondale tried using the truth when he said that [Reagan] will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did." Well the truth hurts, and it damaged Mondale in the polls. And again, Reagan had a line that effectively ended the debate when he said, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." For those of you who saw the debate, the look on Mondale's face said basically, "yeah, this one's over."
My only complaint with Cornog's work is that it's rather brief; I would have like to see a little more backstory on several of the incidents cited in the book. But perhaps this book can be used as a springboard for readers who can later pick and choose the presidents that they'd like to learn a little more about.
Evan Cornog traces the life of American presidents through various stages of the job. The book is as much about history as how one writes history. The content is as much a lesson on journalism as it is a criticism of the "final word". Cornog does not just select one president through whom to trace the makings of a story. Instead, the author takes each chapter of an informative era in a president's story and places on top of it multiple presidential examples. The approach creates for a much more diverse discussion of the topic; a very fun read.
The makings of the presidential story include the pre-political life, the family life, the big events that create a persona, the campaign trail, the time in office, methods for bowing out and post-office life. Despite the many efforts of presidents to control the story of their life and their motives no one biography or autobiography will ever fully convince. This book is as much about creating the story as it is controlling and shaping the story. It's not about what a president says or stands for as much as what the media decides to publish and how the public chooses to believe it. It is no wonder why campaign strategists hold the power that they do.
The early book chapters mention how various presidents used single life moments to define their character. This worked well for former military candidates. On the other hand, negative perceptions of a single life moment need careful grooming as well. One gaffe or a careless movement in a campaign speech is easy fodder for the opposition and candy for the unforgiving electorate. The media and pop culture, for better or worse, create the story, perhaps even more than the presidents themselves.
Evan Cornog uncovers a number of lesser-known facts surrounding the lives of many presidents. The reader can tell that the author made a conscious effort to include as many presidents in his vignette collection as possible. Towards the middle of the book, however, the examples tend to cover the big few: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt etc. It's very easy to fall into the "story hole" created by history and ignore the "insignificant" presidents. But isn't that also the result of biased and unequal historical coverage? The book is meant to be short so certainly a number of presidential stories are left out.
In the end, who determines the legacy of a president? It would appear that it has very little to do with what the president says and does as much as how he responds to his own mistakes and public misconception. In one interesting chapter, Cornog reviews the life of Thomas Jefferson through a number of biographies (including Jefferson's own unfinished version). Only time will tell the legacy of a president, but with so many versions of a story, one president's life can be evidence for opposing sides of the same argument. What creates a perpetual positive or negative legacy for a past president? Does it all depend on the arbitrary selection of events in the life of that president?
Some presidents can shake off an unfair branding, others cannot. Politics and media can assign brands like "communist", "socialist", "sex scandal", "warrior", "weak", "rogue" and the branding can become the story. The life of the president is surrounded by scrutiny and shrouded in a perpetual balancing act of narratives.
Everyone should read this book. It explains as much about the president as it does about voter manipulation. Every story has multiple sides. There is a true account of history. What better reason, then, to never allow one newscast, one frown, one gaffe or even a concise biography to paint the story of a man or woman who, in the end, will probably never get a fair trial.