The Public Address Conference was “founded” by Michael C. Leff (1941-2010) and David Zarefsky in 1987 and commenced a year later, hosted for the first time by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Its success was such that it became a biennial conference thereafter, now nearly three decades in duration. There has never been an official organization governing the Public Address Conference; its ongoing orchestration has been a democratic and communal affair, with the current host selecting from submitted bids the host for the next conference. To date only the University of Wisconsin has hosted the conference twice; thirteen other universities have hosted. Over the years the format of the Public Address has largely remained the same, with prominent and emergent scholars invited to engage in a plenary session, with a longer research presentation followed by response (the paper having been shared in advance) and then open discussion with the audience. Some hosts have experimented over the years—two respondents; two major papers with one respondent; roundtable panels on a selected theme; dual plenary sessions; special sessions featuring unconventional presentations or presenters from outside the disciplinary fold. Only once did hosts of the Public Address Conference, at the University of Iowa in 1998, select speakers from submissions solicited by an open call for papers. Early on it became customary to thematize the conference and to commence with a keynote address. From its inception the Public Address Conference has honored a distinguished scholar at career end with an encomium panel—toast, roast, or some combination, always a performance of gratitude and affection—at the symposium’s banquet.

Four times in the history of the Public Address Conference an edited volume has been published from the presented research. First, University of Wisconsin, 1988: Michael C. Leff and Fred, J. Kauffeld, eds., Texts in Context: Critical Dialogues on Significant Episodes in American Political Rhetoric (Davis, California: Hermagoras Press, 1989). Second, University of Minnesota, 1992: Thomas W. Benson, ed., Rhetoric and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1997). Third, Indiana University, 1994: J. Michael Hogan, ed., Rhetoric and Community: Studies in Unity and Fragmentation (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998); Fourth, University of Maryland, 2004: Shawn J. Parry-Giles and Trevor Parry-Giles, eds., Public Address and Moral Judgment: Critical Studies in Ethical Tensions (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2009);  A fifth volume is currently planned to be published from the 2016 Public Address Conference at Syracuse University; Barbara Biesecker. University of Georgia, will write the introduction, and John Louis Lucaites, Indiana University, will write the epilogue.

For the sake of this history it is fortunate that both Michael Leff and David Zarefsky have written about the origins of the Public Address Conference. Below are portions of those essays. There also have been two retrospective panels at PAC, one featuring Leff and Zarefsky at Vanderbilt in 2006; the other on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary, at the University of Wisconsin in 2008, featuring David Zarefsky and J. Michael Hogan.

Michael Leff and Fred J. Kauffeld, “Preface,” Texts in Context: Critical Dialogues on Significant Episodes in American Political Rhetoric, vii-viii

“ . . . . . Some years ago, sensing a revival of interest in public address, David Zarefsky proposed holding a conference devoted to that subject. As he conceived it, the conference was to be a modest affair—small, informal, and uncommitted to any grand schemes about the course of future scholarship. It would simply provide a time and place for the like-minded to gather and talk.
As so often happens with good ideas, this one circulated for a time without anyone acting on it. Eventually, however, it was energized through that unofficial but familiar institution—the convention coffee-klatch.
In the spring of 1987, the joint meeting of the Southern and Central States Speech Communication Associations featured a program devoted to Lincoln’s ‘Second Inaugural Address.’ Four speakers presented different interpretations of the address, and a lively discussion followed. Afterward, over coffee, several of the participants and observers shared their enthusiasm about the session and resolved to organize future opportunities for the same kind of exchange. At that point, Zarefsky’s proposal came back to mind, and the first steps were taken toward organizing a public address conference the next year in Madison.
In keeping with the original conception, we did not plan a systematic agenda for the conference. Rather, our method was, as Claude Raines said at the end of Casablanca, ‘to round up the usual suspects.’  We sought to locate scholars actively engaged in the study of public address and identify work in progress that could be turned into a finished paper on relatively short notice. We did engage in one act guided by programmatic considerations: we reserved a session for a review of the ‘state of the art’ in public address scholarship and persuaded David Zarefsky, Martin Medhurst, and Jim Aune to present papers on that theme. Otherwise, the program took shape as we talked to potential contributors. We asked people to write about a ‘case study in public address,’ and the content of our sessions resulted from the choices made by the participants.
The conference convened at Madison June 3-6, 1988, under the title, ‘The Wisconsin Symposium on Public Address: Case Studies in Political Rhetoric.’ The format was designed to allow maximum concentration on the case studies and to promote as much open discussion as possible. For each session, a main speaker was allotted forty-five minutes. A draft copy of every paper was sent to an assigned respondent about a month before the conference, and the respondents delivered fifteen-minute presentations immediately after the main papers. Thereafter an hour was devoted to general discussion of both the paper and the response. . . .”

David Zarefsky, “Foreword,” Rhetoric and Community: Studies in Unity and Fragmentation, ix.

“Over coffee during the 1987 convention of the Central States Speech Association, Michael Leff and I reflected on the revival of scholarly interest in studies of public address. Lamenting the fact that there were no existing vehicles for facilitating the kind of dialogue we thought would be helpful, we came up with the idea of an intensive public address conference. It would be small and highly interactive, and the format would consist of sessions in which a single scholar would offer a major paper analyzing one or more texts, another scholar would respond, and then a full hour would be available for discussion. Owing largely to Mike Leff’s energy and commitment, our vague idea was brought to fruition in a conference held at the University of Wisconsin in June of 1988.
Participants found the experience so valuable that there soon was demand for a successor conference, and before long it came to be widely understood (I deliberately do not say ‘institutionalized’) that it would be a biennial event hosted on different campuses. . . .”

Biennial Public Address Conference


Year Hosts Keynote Honoree
1988 University of Wisconsin
“The Wisconsin Symposium
on Public Address: Case
Studies in Political Rhetoric”
None Donald K Smith
1990 Northwestern University None Carroll Arnold
1992 University of Minnesota Edwin Black Robert Gunderson
1994 Indiana University
“Rhetoric & Community:
Studies in Unity &
Roderick Hart Leland Griffin
1996 University of Illinois
“Rhetoric & Democratic
Imagination in America”
Robert Hariman Robert Newman
1998 University of Iowa
“Public Address in an
Electronic Age”
None Ernest G. Bormann
2000 Pennsylvania State University
“Rhetoric, Identity, and Public Culture”
Martin Medhurst Edwin Black
2002 University of Georgia
“Discourses of Violence,
Discourses of Community”
Karlyn Campbell Robert Scott
2004 University of Maryland
“Constituting Political Culture”
Celeste Condit James Andrews
2006 Vanderbilt University
“Arts of Praise and Blame:
Characters of Public Address”
Stephen H. Browne Bruce Gronbeck
2008 University of Wisconsin
“Representing the Republic”
John Murphy Karlyn Campbell
2010 University of Pittsburgh
“Human Rights Rhetoric”
Kirt Wilson David Zarefsky
2012 University of Memphis
“On Civic Learning”
Gerard Hauser Thomas Benson
2014 Georgia State University
“Mapping Authority”
Tom Goodnight Michael Osborn
2016 Syracuse University
“The Conceit of Context”
Carole Blair Stephen Lucas