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New Book Examines How Personal Stories Play a Role in Presidential Political Success - 2004-08-19

As George Bush and John Kerry enter the final months of this year's U.S. presidential campaign, there's bound to be a lot of debate over the character of the candidates, their stand on the issues and their vision for America's future. Writer Evan Cornog predicts both sides will aim to transform those debates into compelling stories about their own lives and the life of the country. Mr. Cornog is the publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review and the author of a book called The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush

As a Navy lieutenant during World War II, John F. Kennedy commanded a PT-boat that collided with a Japanese warship and sank in the Pacific. The story of how he helped rescue other crew members inspired a song and a movie, and became an enduring part of his public image. Evan Cornog says the story would prove a huge asset to the future president as he launched his political career.

"The idea of the story got out various messages about what kind of person John F. Kennedy was, that he was a person with personal courage, that he was a leader of men, that he was someone who could survive adversity," he says.

In The Power and the Story Evan Cornog looks at the role stories play in electing candidates to office, helping Presidents push through their agendas and secure their place in history. He believes stories have played an especially important role in American political life.

"Unlike older nations of Europe that were founded around geographic and linguistic affinities and other common bonds, the United States was really a nation built on ideas and shared experiences," he explains. "And both the ideas and the experiences are conveyed through stories, whether it's Washington's troops at Valley Forge or the story of Lincoln and his assassination or Franklin Roosevelt seeing the nation through the Great Depression and Second World War, stories about free speech, stories about military heroism all things that together form part of the national story."

Evan Cornog says President George W. Bush came to office with a story of personal transformation.

"Probably the most important story of his life is his renunciation of alcohol and his deepening religious faith at the time of his fortieth birthday," he adds. "And that has become kind of a central part of the narratives of George W. Bush."

But since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 President Bush has turned his story of private adversity into one of triumphing over national tragedy.

"Nobody wants to be the war president. People want to be the peace president," the president said.

But that hasn't been his destiny as president, Mr. Bush suggested during a recent campaign appearance in Florida.

"The country changed on September the 11th, 2001, and it's vital for the president to clearly see the world the way it is," he said.

President Bush's opponent, John Kerry, has made the story of his Vietnam war experience one of the central themes of his campaign.

"I know what kids go through when they're carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place, and they can't tell friend from foe," Senator Kerry said.

Senator Kerry accepted the Democratic presidential nomination with these words.

"As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war?," he said.

One of America's most skilled storytellers, says Evan Cornog, was Ronald Reagan, heard here talking about the Berlin Wall that symbolized the divisions of the Cold War.

"No American who sees first hand the concrete and mortar, the guard posts, the machine gun towers, the dog runs and the barbed wire, can ever again take for granted his or her freedom or the precious gift that is America," the former president said.

"Certainly Ronald Reagan did not come by the name 'The Great Communicator' for nothing," said Mr. Cornog. "He was tremendously good at telling positive stories about America. And I think one of the lessons of this book for me was that people telling positive stories tend to be much more warmly greeted by the American people."

Then there was America's First president George Washington, who's inspired some of the nation's best known tales and legends, not always of his own making.

"Probably the most famous story about Washington wasn't even published until seven years after his death," he explains. "That's the story about chopping down the cherry tree and then telling his father, 'I cannot tell a lie, I did it.' That was put into a posthumous biography of him by a man named Parson Weems, and it helps form the notion of what kind of childhood a president should have."

Early presidential candidates also tried to imitate George Washington's reluctance to assume the presidency. To avoid seeming too ambitious, says Evan Cornog, those candidates relied on supporters to shape their image.

"But with the rise of modern communications, candidates have gotten much more involved in telling their own stories," he notes. "They tell them in debates. They tell them in public appearances. They disseminate them these days in web sites, and they create campaign biographies that get shown at conventions and become the official version of that candidate's life."

And once they leave office, most presidents write a memoir in hopes of shaping a lasting story about their lives. In his best-selling new book My Life former President Bill Clinton discusses one of the most negative stories of his administration, his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. But in a recent television interview, he tried to place that story in a broader context.

"It's a part of my story. I've lived a long life, but it's not the whole story," he said. "And all I think is that the more time goes on, the more people will weigh it in the balance scales of everything else in my personal life, and in my public life."

Evan Cornog believes that whether political stories are positive or negative, they can be misleading.

"There are a lot of things in the world that are important to understand that maybe don't make very good stories," he notes. "If you think of environmental problems for example, to really understand PCBs and what role they have in the environment is very difficult to get across. Whereas, if you come up with a very simple story about the direct cost of some environmental regulation, that can be much more vivid. So a lot of what I'm trying to do in this book is to get people to step back and first of all think: 'Is this story true?' And second, 'Is what this is telling me really something I need to be thinking about as a citizen?'"

Evan Cornog says the current administration has done a skillful job of publicizing positive stories about President Bush. But he believes the Iraq War will be a central theme in the stories crafted by both sides in this election, and those that connect most powerfully with voters will have a major impact on the outcome.