Starting with newsreels and photography at the turn of the century, Americans began to labor under the illusion that they knew their presidents. Theodore Roosevelt, whose outsize personality and boisterous brood of children attracted incessant press coverage, personalized the presidency as no one had before. With his toothy grin and ubiquitous pince-nez, his face became iconic. The mass-communications media of radio and then TV furthered the false sense of intimacy between citizens and public figures, and encouraged more informal styles of speaking and acting in public. Franklin D. Roosevelt famously began his first fireside chat, “My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking.” It began a revolution in presidential communication, killing off the grand, flowery stem-winders of men such as William Jennings Bryan and ushering in a more direct, unpretentious mode.
In the following decades, presidential candidates came to use you and I in their speeches far more than had the orators of yesteryear. Harry Truman, far from a natural rhetorician, struggled with speechmaking until a broadcast coach taught him to use a semi-ad-libbed style, in which he spoke from notes instead of a fixed script. The looser, freer technique—on display at the 1948 Democratic convention—won credit for his political renaissance. Dwight Eisenhower, too, submitted to the tutelage of the actor Robert Montgomery and began delivering his White House speeches resting casually against his desk or wearing powder-blue suits, the better to affect an easygoing, relatable manner. And if Ike’s casual wear toned down the formality of the office, it was nothing next to John F. Kennedy’s being photographed sailing without a shirt on.
But especially after the society-wide revolt against established authority that began in the 1960s, presidents struggled to adjust. At the height of the Vietnam War, with his approval ratings falling, Lyndon Johnson agreed to try something different for a November 1967 press conference. With a lavaliere microphone clipped to his lapel, Johnson at one point removed his eyeglasses, stepped from the podium, and began to stride around: The funny, spontaneous Johnson reporters knew in private emerged. “He waved his arms, chopped the air … scowled, laughed, and ran his voice through a range of sound from high-volume anger to quiet, self-deprecating gentleness,” reported The New York Times, in one of many positive reviews Johnson won for the performance. White House aides were euphoric and urged him to do it more often. “God damn it,” Johnson replied with a growl, “I’m not in show business.” He refused to wear the lavaliere mic again, calling it unpresidential.
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Richard Nixon offered a different sort of unpresidential conduct: Tapes caught him cursing, fuming, trashing his enemies, and plotting petty acts of revenge. This behavior, when disclosed, helped turn even some conservative supporters against him. Indeed, as Nixon’s experience showed, a certain concealment of the president’s backstage operations was necessary for the presidency to maintain its mystique and its attendant air of authority. Efforts to prove oneself a regular American by showing off one’s family or private habits could backfire by stripping the president of whatever remained of his aura of greatness. Jimmy Carter won the presidency with Jeffersonian gestures of ordinariness, sleeping in voters’ guest rooms and living rooms while on the campaign trail, and acknowledging to Playboy magazine the “lust” he felt for women besides his wife. He routinely said things like “I don’t claim to know all the answers.” But eventually, he found, the public judged him feckless and didn’t take him seriously enough. The absence of formality around his presidency eroded the gravitas he needed to govern with credibility.