For any president to be an effective leader, he must also be a skilled communicator. To do so, he must command the publicity mediums available to him in his time to sway public opinion - public sentiment - to his cause, his vision. Lincoln led the nation to support his policies and vision through the assiduous use of the power of his pen in hundreds of letters and articles written to the national newspapers; for Teddy Roosevelt, it was the social issue magazines with by-lines of those who would become known as the “muckrakers”, for presidents beginning with Calvin Coolidge, it was the transformative medium of radio, and, beginning with Harry Truman, the cool medium of television which became the means by which presidents molded public sentiment in support of their vision. And in 2015, Barack Obama leads through a personal interaction with practically anyone who has a computer.
If the “modern presidency” can be defined through the prism of modern communication technology, then the administration of Calvin Coolidge is an appropriate place to begin.
Forever to be known as “Silent Cal”, Coolidge was anything but silent. From assuming the presidency in 1923 upon the death of Warren G. Harding, until leaving office in 1929, Coolidge was heard by more Americans than all of the presidents before him combined. His Inaugural Address of 1924 was heard on radio by 23 million listeners whereas, just four years before, Warren Harding's audience for his Inaugural Address was 125,000. (White House Historical Association)
In using the communication mediums of their times, presidents exercised leadership in ways that reflected their personalities and the unique character traits with which they are associated. With Harry Truman, the “buck” stopped with him. Ronald Reagan was “the Great Communicator”; Lyndon Johnson was unconvincing on camera but was known for twisting arms and other appendages to achieve his goals; Bill Clinton conveyed that he “felt your pain”; FDR came into your home for a “fireside” chat; John Kennedy co-opted the media with his charm and charisma; Dwight Eisenhower combined the aura of his Army command with the glittering smile of the “man who comes from the very heart of America”; George W. Bush rallied the country after the worst peacetime attack in American history much as George H. W. Bush rallied the world to stop Iraq's aggression in Kuwait. And, Gerald Ford brought comity back into the political arena by his calm everyman demeanor after the nation-rendering impact of Richard Nixon and Watergate. But lest Nixon's communication skills be relegated to his maudlin farewell speech on his resigning the presidency, history will remember that he saved his vice-presidential candidacy and political career with his “Checkers” television performance in 1952.
For all of these men, the tool they used to exercise their power and to lead the country in support of their policies was the electronic medium that changed the art of presidential communication from mom and pop retail politics to that of one-stop shopping at a wholesale chain store. “Torch light parades”, “front porch” campaigning, editorials in partisan newspapers and magazines, and whistlestop barnstorming that had formed the crux of presidential communication for over a century, were supplanted in a short moment in time by a technology that brought presidents into homes in every corner of of the nation. With this technology, presidents were given a new instrument of leadership by which they could persuade, cajole and convince Americans to follow and support their visions.
Harry Truman characterized the sum of presidential power when he said, “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them. That's all the powers of the President amount to." (“Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents”, Richard E. Neustadt).
Coming from the man famous for saying “the buck stops here”, this lament on the extent of his power may reflect the impotence Truman felt on a daily basis in the Oval Office. Move Truman to the 21st Century and instead of leading the relatively few through personal conversations and 20th Century technology, he would have the enormous power of the internet and social media with which to influence and lead public opinion. One can only hope it is a power that will be well and wisely exercised.
Richard L. Claypoole served in a variety of leadership positions for the National Archives, including being the Director of the Office of the Federal Register and the Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries and Museums. He was an editor of the Public Papers of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and editor in chief of the Public Papers of Ronald Reagan.