A Presidents Day Tribute
By David Foster, Associate Professor of Communication, The University of Findlay
As the GOP primaries continue to heat up, allegations are flying back and forth between the campaigns of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich concerning how the other has flip-flopped on key issues. Specifically, Romney’s supporters have accused Gingrich of changing his view on health care while Gingrich’s supporters have accused Romney of flip-flopping on abortion. (Click on the links to see the negative attacks)
Claiming an opponent is a flip-flopper has long been a strategy in U.S. presidential politics. It played a key role in the 1972 election (click on the link and see the top row fifth ad from the left) when Richard Nixon showed George McGovern’s change of positions, and in 2004 when George W. Bush’s infamous “Windsurfing” commercial exposed John Kerry as a flip-flopper (top row and scroll on the arrow to the right; it is the third commercial on the top row titled “Windsurfing”).
But it may surprise you to learn that Honest Abe, whom many say was the best president ever, also fits this category. A large segment of American citizens were once concerned that Lincoln may have been a flip-flopper. Even though Lincoln is remembered as a great president, some in the South were afraid to completely trust his remarks in his First Inaugural Address.
As I wrote in the American Communication Journal, despite the fact that Lincoln’s views in that address were directed to and were extremely conciliatory towards the South, they were seen as being contradictory to statements he made in his 1858 senatorial debates with Stephen Douglas and with statements he had made in many parts of the U.S. as part of his 1860 presidential campaign. These included statements from stump speeches he gave in Springfield, Ill., in small towns throughout Indiana and Ohio and even in one of his most famous speeches ever—the Cooper Union Address, given in New York just days before the inauguration.
The South, with the nation on the verge of war, didn’t know which Lincoln to believe. Should it be the one who had bitterly attacked slavery? Or, should it be the one who told them in the inaugural “they had nothing to fear—that he would never interfere with slavery where it now existed.” Partially because of the many conflicting views he had expressed over the years, they chose to believe the former. And days after he was sworn in, shots were fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War began, commencing the bloodiest war in U.S. history and leading to some of our country’s darkest hours.
So, as the charges of flip-flopping fly back and forth among presidential candidates of both parties in this year’s primaries and general election, it is interesting to note that the man many consider to be our nation’s greatest president ever was not immune to the charge of being a flip-flopper himself.
Editor’s Note: If you like political communication, don’t miss Professor Foster’s seminar on presidential campaign rhetoric (COMM 400) slated for Fall 2012.