The Performative Language Games of Dramapolitik: How Abraham Lincoln became an intellectual patriot and George W. Bush became a cowboy diplomat

Kurt Lancaster


When presidents attempt to transform a country, they do so by utilizing a keen understanding of the status quo and a knowledge of how to challenge it—and most often, they challenge it by performing a key speech. Within this speech, leaders create a persona designed to challenge a previously held public perception about themselves and their country in order to take the entire country in a new direction. In order for the change to happen, the new persona of a president must reflect in a meaningful way the needs and desires of the audience. This essay presents a close reading of Lincoln’s key pre-presidential speech—the one that propelled him to the presidency and Bush’s speech to Congress after 9/11—the one that made him presidential. A comparative analysis of these two speeches reveal the kind of persona these presidents created and foreshadowed the types of decisions they would make in office—decisions that would effect their citizens and reshape the nation. Lincoln sculpted an erudite speech steeped in constitutional argument with a force of logic that proved to many that he wasn’t just a rustic man of the west, but a statesman worthy of being a president. Bush shaped his post-9/11 presidency around a key speech that turned his flailing presidency around to the point where many saw Bush become “presidential” for the first time. Both Lincoln and Bush utilized performative rhetoric that not only transformed themselves, but also transformed how their audience perceived them—and by doing so, the audience empowered their leaders to take the country in a new direction, Lincoln holding the country together and ending slavery, and while Bush presented strong leadership abilities in order to decisively respond to terrorism, the results were steeped in a neoconservative agenda designed to extend United States’ hegemony around the world.

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