Talking with the President: The Pragmatics of Presidential Language, John Wilson

Reviewed by Jennifer Hopper



Many scholars have carefully parsed the words that emerge from presidents’ mouths, but few have provided a detailed investigation of, say, the significance of Ronald Reagan’s preference for contractions or the weighty implications of Barack Obama deeming Iraq a “dumb” war rather than a “stupid” one. These examples are just a small piece of John Wilson’s project in Talking with the President: The Pragmatics of Presidential Language to apply pragmatics, or “the analysis and description of meaning construction in social contexts of interaction” (p. 3), to the presidential language of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. The book is noteworthy not only for this innovative approach to the study of presidential rhetoric but also for the ways Wilson skillfully integrates findings from linguistics, political science, the law, literary studies, psychology, and philosophy (among other fields) to provide a rich and interdisciplinary account of why individual presidents speak the way they do and the reactions that such talk provokes in those who hear it. The text is highly readable, at times interlacing presidents’ words with examples of how we make similar language choices in our everyday lives to clarify or obscure meaning (or, in US Weekly parlance, “Presiden

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