US Foreign Policy
18 June 2019

How Can Presidents Speak to the Hearts and Minds of Millions?

A recent PhD thesis examines how the collaboration patterns between various White House departments and individual staffers influences the content and structure of presidential speeches. It shows that a president’s ability to persuade is not simply a matter of personal style or writing craft but an outcome of complex organisational dynamics. Interview with Mihai Tudor Mihailescu on “Opening the Black Box of US Presidential Rhetoric: The Influence of Speechwriting on Frame Formation in Three War Justification Campaigns”.

Why did you decide to study presidential speechwriting?

I’ve been fascinated by rhetoric for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I found inspiration and courage in reading speeches by great leaders, and I was especially captivated by the eloquence and persuasiveness of American presidents. So, during my bachelor and master studies, I was naturally drawn to researching and studying how politicians and parties communicate to citizens, how their speeches perpetuate or change narratives in society and how those narratives transform societal practices and norms. But I still couldn’t find a satisfactory answer to the question that had triggered my initial curiosity: how can presidents speak to the hearts and minds of millions? What if it’s more than just charisma and personal writing talent? Presidential speeches, like most governmental communications, are rarely the product of a single individual. They are the outcome of a complex mechanism of writing and editing, which can extend over several months and involve multiple departments and dozens of staffers. However, existing research has little to say about how variations in this process influence the content and structure of presidential speeches and their ability to persuade target audiences. So, I joined the PhD programme in international relations/political science in October 2013 to take on the challenge of filling this knowledge gap under the careful guidance of Professors Annabelle Littoz-Monnet (supervisor) and Thomas Biersteker (second reader).

How does your thesis help fill this gap?

My PhD thesis is the outcome of a five-year research into how organisational patterns of text collaboration shape the structure and content of public justification campaigns. The study elaborates a theoretical model for understanding these dynamics and puts forward a typology of speechwriting systems and their expected rhetorical outputs. A persuasive justification campaign is a series of speeches organised around a specific topic, that manages to maintain a central narrative while at the same time addressing multiple audiences on their own terms and in their own language. My research shows that the ability of a president to achieve this communication structure depends on two main organisational dynamics. The collaborative vs. competitive ethos within the White House affects the president’s ability to formulate and stick to one central, coherent narrative in communicating about a specific topic within a certain time frame. The extent to which drafts of speeches are circulated for feedback across the various White House and government departments influences the president’s capability to use language that resonates well with multiple audiences domestically and internationally. To demonstrate the explanatory value of this theoretical framework, my PhD project focuses on three case studies: Harry Truman’s rhetoric about the Korean War (25 June 1950–29 September 1950), Richard Nixon’s speeches about the Cambodian Intervention (15 April 1970–22 July 1970), and George W. Bush’s public justifications for the US involvement in the Gulf Conflict (30 October 1990–11 March 1991). The historical focus of the research is particularly useful for understanding how governmental organisations like the White House have adapted their communication practices to the rapid technological advancement of the last half a century.

What was your methodology?

To realise the objectives of this project, I had to develop a deep understanding of how presidential texts are structured but also how White House speechwriting really happens. On the one hand, I ran a qualitative text analysis of more than 200 presidential speeches to capture how various word arrangements produce a persuasive effect. On the other hand, I conducted archival research in the Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and George Bush libraries, located in the three presidents’ home states of Missouri, California and Texas. Presidential libraries store the entire collection of documents and artefacts pertaining to a specific administration. So, I was able to track the process by which presidential rhetoric is created, through the paper trails of hundreds of speech drafts from first sketch to delivery copy. I then spent the final year of my PhD studies as a visiting scholar at the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. In the US capital I was able to conduct interviews with speechwriters and other White House staff members from various administrations. I also had the humbling opportunity to engage in conversations with some of the world’s best communications and political science scholars. These exchanges enabled me to crystallise the research findings and sharpen my analysis. 

Could your theoretical model be applied in other contexts than US presidential rhetoric?

Yes, it indeed could as its relevance to understanding patterns of collaboration on text creation goes far beyond the White House to include most large organisations, whether governmental or corporate. My work provides useful insight into how to streamline interdepartmental cooperation for more efficient public communication strategies and prevention of public relations mishaps. Moreover, within the context of recent artificial intelligence advances in language generation, my research holds the potential to bring a substantial contribution to the knowledge base necessary for making progress in automating the most time-consuming components of public communications writing. 

What has this research journey meant for you?

Looking back, my years of research at the Graduate Institute have been a truly life-changing experience. When I first moved to Geneva I hadn’t even been on an airplane before, let alone have the opportunity to travel to the United States. Seven years later, I was sitting in the National Press Club in Washington, DC, having a conversation with individuals who had made an imprint on the kind of world-changing events that had fuelled my passion and curiosity for politics as a young student growing up on the other side of the world, in post-communist Romania. I am so grateful to the Graduate Institute for creating the educational and academic support system that made this journey possible. It’s truly a dream come true!

What are you doing now?

After officially submitting the final version of my PhD thesis in March, I was fortunate enough to be one of the 68 individuals selected out of 1,300 applications to join the Amsterdam programme of a highly competitive global technology incubator called Antler. Since the start of the programme in mid-May, I am working with experienced software and artificial intelligence engineers to explore the potential applications for my PhD research in helping create technology that can enable organisations to streamline and improve their communications practices for achieving a more meaningful type of engagement with various audiences on issues of public interest.

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Mihai Tudor Mihailescu defended his PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in October 2018. Professor Thomas Biersteker presided the committee, which included Professor Annabelle Littoz-Monnet, thesis director, and Professor Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, from the School of International Service, American University, Washington DC, USA.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Mihailescu, Mihai Tudor. “Opening the Black Box of US Presidential Rhetoric: The Influence of Speechwriting on Frame Formation in Three War Justification Campaigns.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download Dr Mihailescu’s PhD thesis via this page of the Institute’s repository.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image by Maxx-Studio/