Presidents often make references to their predecessors in their oral remarks—a rhetorical tool that can advance support for their policies, define their presidency, and achieve political gains. And yet, despite the frequency that this rhetorical tool is used and its possible impact, references to former presidents have so far defied a systematic empirical research. To fill in this void in the literature, we examine the frequency of references to presidents, the identity of referenced presidents, and the policy context of each reference in all oral references made by presidents Reagan through Trump. We demonstrate that mentioning former presidents is a political tool that presidents use routinely in their public speeches. We find that presidents use this tool strategically—controlling the timing and identity of references and in connection to their policy appeals.
Reagan mentioned JFK more than any other president, even Lincoln.