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“As nearly all scholars recognize,” we read in an article published in Presidential Studies Quarterly in 1983, “there is no apprenticeship or training an individual may obtain in preparation for the presidency. There is no convenient book or guide which provides a detailed step-by-step analysis of the requirements and demands of the office.”

How true! An acquaintance with the Constitution would surely be helpful, but it’s not as if you have to pass a test on it -- even one with simple questions, such as “Would requiring Muslims to register with the government follow the First Amendment (a) to the letter, (b) in spirit or (c) none of the above?” (It’s surprising how far you can get in public life without being able to answer that one correctly.)

But the whole point of the paper just quoted -- “On ‘Becoming’ President of the United States: The Interaction of the Office with the Office Holder” by Robert E. Denton Jr. -- is that coping with the lack of an orientation handbook is one of the simultaneous, urgent and inflexible demands over which the incoming chief executive must demonstrate a mastery, beginning almost immediately. The author is a professor of communications (and head of the department) at Virginia Tech, with a special interest in the “symbolic dimensions of the American presidency,” to borrow the title of the first of his more than two dozen books.

His vita shows that Denton has been analyzing presidential communications more or less in real time since the first Reagan administration, when “On ‘Becoming’ President” appeared. One of his earliest publications, it proves especially interesting just now -- despite having been written long before official speeches and press conferences were joined by such message-delivery formats as the tweet.

“On ‘Becoming’ President” takes its bearings from symbolic interactionism: a school of thought at the intersection of sociology and psychology, and well established even then. Its defining insight -- drawn largely from the American pragmatist philosophers, especially George Herbert Mead -- is that communication between human beings always involves considerably more than the content of a message. We also take in cues about one another’s roles, statuses, expectations and so on -- an ongoing process of learning to see oneself from other people’s vantage points.

They are doing so at the same time, of course. It can get complicated, even when the roles, beliefs and shared expectations are all reasonably clear or well established. Arguably the symbolic-interactionist researcher and the novelist or filmmaker each tries to depict and analyze the range of communicative multitasking constantly underway in life.

The Oval Office emerges as the scene where symbolic interactions of global consequence take place that are conditioned by “expectations and functions of the office [that] are often competing, conflicting and contradictory.” In addition to the president’s constitutionally specified roles (chief of state, chief executive, chief diplomat, chief legislator and commander in chief), another “five extraconstitutional roles must be recognized: chief of [his] party, protector of the peace, manager of prosperity, world leader and voice of the people.” (Denton culls these roles from the poli-sci literature of the day; the references are given in his article.)

Occupancy of the office itself confers a great deal of persuasive force in exercising any given role. But it often requires playing a number of them simultaneously, and while a certain amount of authority may be delegated, the ultimate responsibility cannot. Denton also underscores the constant burden of “vast and complex” public expectation, both to meet of promises and to exhibit a suitable combination of leadership traits and personal morality.

“Many attitudes about the presidency stem from messages received in childhood about the virtues of various presidents,” Denton writes. “Studies continually find that the president is ordinarily the first public official to come to the attention of young children. Long before children are informed about the specific functions of the presidency, they view individual presidents as exceptionally important and benign.”

He mentions researchers who found children attributing to the president qualities of “honesty, wisdom, helpfulness” and related virtues. (All of the studies Denton cites were conducted before the mid-1970s, but comparable findings appear in a book on child psychology from 2005.)

The symbolic-interactionist approach would emphasize not only presidential roles and duties (as established by the Constitution or tradition) or the pressure of public expectations (still tinged with hero fantasies from childhood, perhaps) but also the inner experience of “adopting and adapting the self to the actions of others” through years of public life. The political learning curve “is adaptive,” Denton writes, “resulting from the capacity to change self depending on political environment, beliefs, values and expectations.”

Implied by Denton’s remarks on what he calls the “political self” is some normative sense of a successful candidate’s personality and career: a self conditioned by the experience of political action and debate, informed by some modeling of another’s leadership, and skilled at anticipating the impact of both words and deeds. The tempered political self -- so understood -- will presumably be as well prepared as anyone can be to incorporate “the trappings, powers and prerogatives of the presidency” into itself. And he suggests that the process is not without its risks, even then.

Our majestic treatment of presidents causes status inequality, inflation of self-concept and distorted perception of external events. Such exposure manifests distortion of social comparison processes, ‘overidentification’ with the office and misinformed decisions …. Presidents are constantly pressured to misrepresent or distort themselves to various national constituencies. Such a continual pressure causes further misrepresentations, erosion of truth norms and self-delusion.

It appears that the author had Richard Nixon in mind as the worst-case scenario, although Nixon had more than 20 years of political experience (including one previous presidential campaign) before taking office. In any event, Denton’s paper is something to chew on this week -- and to choke down in the months ahead.

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