The following text was delivered at a talk entitled “Sharks and the American Presidency” hosted by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney on Thursday, November 3, 2022.
American Presidents are apex politicians.
They cruise the primaries looking for opportunities to nibble the competition. They lurk in the shallows of a debate for their moment to strike — and then — they attack! Like a “There you go again” or an “I will not make age an issue of this campaign”, where we saw President Reagan use discourse to command a room and slip beneath the surface.
American presidents also use their skills and abilities to be seen as unique heroes in society.
But for every hero, there is a villain. And in many cases throughout history, sharks have provided a foil for American Presidents to gain acclaim.
Sharks represent a certain type of ungovernable problem, as illustrated by the Jaws Effect (Neff, 2015), where there is perceived intent when a shark bite occurs, which is different than perceptions that exist around other accidents in nature.
For instance, there has been no government “war on lightning”, even though lighting strikes accounted for 11 fatalities and 69 injuries in the U.S. in 2021. As opposed to shark bites, where there is one shark bite fatality in the U.S. in 2021 and three in 2020. Indeed, there were nine shark fatalities globally in 2021 from 73 total incidents. According to Holle (2016), there are a documented total of “4,101 [lightning-related] fatalities per year” around the world.
Despite the ‘jawesomeness’ of the problem sharks pose, the focus of this analysis is on the Presidents because it is they who motivate the political narrative. As a result, the research question driving this study is: how does the relationship between sharks and U.S. Presidents advance the office of the presidency? How do we make our heroes?
I argue that three dominant conditions influence how presidents use sharks to advance their office – or their pursuit of the office. Hero-making occurs…