Study Guide

Executive Branch & Presidents - The Bully Pulpit

The Bully Pulpit

  • In modern era, communicating effectively through mass media has become critically important skill for presidents
  • Teddy Roosevelt spoke of presidency as "bully pulpit"
  • Franklin Roosevelt used radio to communicate directly to American people
  • Ronald Reagan mastered use of TV images to reinforce his message
On 30 March, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot as he walked from Washington, DC's Hilton Hotel to his waiting car. Several reporters and photographers were on hand to witness John Hinckley fire the bullets that punctured the lung of the president and wounded a police officer, a Secret Service agent, and White House Press Secretary James Brady.

The tragedy left multiple legacies. Would-be assassin Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, leading to a widespread re-evaluation of the insanity defense. Press Secretary Brady suffered permanent brain damage; he subsequently led a campaign to stiffen the nation's gun control laws. President Reagan quickly recovered; his resilience and his plucky explanation to his wife Nancy—"Honey, I forgot to duck"—further endeared the popular president to the American public.

On a different note, the incident served as a macabre reminder that the American public rarely saw the president when he was not in transit. Walking to his car, exiting Air Force One, stepping out of the presidential helicopter, or most famously and elegantly, cantering up the press lines on his favorite horse while vacationing at his California ranch, Ronald Reagan almost always presented himself to the press while in motion.

Nor was this an accident. President Reagan's mobility was part of a clever strategy for managing the difficult press relations that had dogged less skilled presidents. Always more of a visionary than a policy wonk and better at articulating the broad philosophical objectives than the details of any particular program or plan, Reagan avoided press encounters that could not be controlled. Press conferences, for example, were risky; at a podium, an unanswered question suggested evasiveness or even ignorance. But in motion, Reagan could control the duration of the interview; he could choose which questions to ignore and which to embrace. A failure to respond could be blamed on the schedule or—better yet—on the deafening whirr of the helicopter blades. During his eight years in the White House, Reagan held an average of seven press conferences a year. By comparison, Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter (often criticized for being too immersed in the details), held about 22 per year.