Presidential Communication: A Brief History

George Washington’s Inauguration

Since George Washington was inaugurated in 1789, the way our Presidents have communicated with the citizenry has changed dramatically. As a surveyor in western Virginia, member of the House of Burgesses and Continental Congress, Commander of the Continental Army, President of the Constitutional Convention and later, first President of the United States, Washington was an expert traveler. But even he averaged only about 5 miles per hour by horse. This, of course, did not account for the official greetings, state dinners, military honors and general fanfare that accompanied him wherever he went, particularly in his later years. Even so, only a small percentage of adoring Americans ever had the honor of hearing his voice.

This trend continued for all of our Presidents throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Few Americans would ever have the opportunity to hear their Presidents speak directly to them. Candidates and Presidents alike were limited to having their speeches printed in newspapers, handbills, and broadsheets or having local politicians speak on their behalf. The telegraph enabled instant communiqués over long distances that traditional letters could not, but it lacked intimacy. Much like text messaging or email today, these written forms of communication failed to convey intonation or body language, components that make up a majority of what we perceive.

President Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes was the first President to have telephones installed in the White House in 1877, and both Warren G. Harding and William Taft distributed phonograph recordings of the speeches. And though the advent of the railroad drastically increased the range Presidents could travel and the number of people they could address directly using whistle stops tours, it simply wasn’t possible to reach large numbers of the citizenry directly until the invention of radio.

In 1922, at a dedication for the memorial site of Francis Scott Key (composer of the “Star Spangled Banner”), Warren G. Harding became the first President to have his voice transmitted by radio. The following year, President Calvin Coolidge gave his State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress and was broadcast live. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered the first of his many “fireside chats” where he demonstrated mastery of the new medium by informally explaining his policies directly to the American people. Throughout the 1930s, over 90% of American households owned a radio and for the next 11 years, until his death in 1944, F.D.R. gave a total of 31 of these speeches.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Though F.D.R. was also the first President to appear on television in 1939, Harry S. Truman was the first President to give an address on T.V. in 1947. With all of the previous mediums though, how a candidate appeared was never a concern, but Presidential candidate Richard Nixon is said to have lost the debate with J.F.K. as far as T.V. viewers were concerned for appearing nervous. In fact though, what he lacked was make-up, a new requirement for the new medium. Since then, candidates and Presidents alike have learned the importance of make-up, wardrobe, back-drops and lighting. For over 70 years, T.V. has been the preferred medium for Presidents and Presidential candidates alike… until recently.

Donald J. Trump

In 2016, like F.D.R. during the 1930s with radio, Donald J. Trump demonstrated complete mastery of social media. With around 16 million Twitter followers and Facebook Page Likes, Trump’s campaign spent less than $5 per vote, propelling him to the Presidency. Considering his challenger and establishment favorite, Hillary Clinton, outspent him by a margin of two to one, this is no small accomplishment. Throughout the campaign, much of the U.S. traditional media demonstrated overwhelming liberal bias for Hillary Clinton and against Trump, causing them to lose whatever trust they had left with the American people. While his success is a testament to his ability to use this new medium to communicate directly to the citizenry and around the bias filter the left has spent decades constructing to ensure the success of their chosen candidates, this is new territory in the war on speech.

The majority of social media platforms today including Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Google+ are owned and operated by avowed Democrats. Each regularly censors comments, links, and accounts associated with political views they oppose. Facebook and Twitter have made clear their views that Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States until they can be properly vetted constitutes “hate speech”, whatever that is. As privately owned companies, Conservatives and Libertarians would agree they have the right to determine their own user policies, and could, for example, suspend or even delete the President’s account on the grounds that it violated them. Only time will tell whether these companies will put their profits ahead of their principles, but Americans generally don’t like censorship in any form. Any company caught suppressing speech, trends or messaging in an attempt to prevent direct communication between the American citizenry and their President is likely to find itself as irrelevant as traditional, left-wing media has. Either way, there are alternative social media platforms which are friendlier to Conservatives, such as the Tea Party Community.

-Matt Fitzgibbons,
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