The writers of the article “Libbie Custer’s Last Stand: Image Restoration, The Press, and Public Memory set out to answer the question “How did Elizabeth Custer’s publicity campaign contribute to the image restoration and public memory of her husband, (George Armstrong Custer) a controversial figure?”
The authors examined 265 articles written by or about Elizabeth Custer from 1876 to 1934.
The authors rely on William L. Benoit’s image restoration theory which states that when mistakes are criticized and image is threatened, we feel compelled to offer explanations, defend, justify, rationalize, apologize or make excuses for our behavior. Benoit also identified five strategies that are commonly used for image restoration: denial, evading responsibility, corrective action, mortification, and reducing the offensiveness of the event. Other tactics include bolstering, or relating positive attributes or past actions, minimization, which suggests the transgression was not as bad as first seemed; differentiation, or comparing the action to something worse that could have been done; transcendence, which means providing a different frame of reference; attacking one’s accuser; and compensation, or remunerating the victim to offset negative feelings.
In addition to concrete PR methods such as building relationships with congressmen, senators and her husband’s military superiors, Elizabeth Custer also used strategies associated with reducing offensiveness such as bolstering Custer’s reputation by reinforcing positive aspects of his past (military success during the Civil War) and transcendence, suggesting a different frame of reference – that offered by a grieving widow. How could an evil man inspire such devotion from such a saintly wife? She bolstered his reputation as a courageous military man and tempered this by presenting vignettes of her home life with him as a domestic husband. Benoit also states that image restoration is at first directed at an external audience, but he notes that such efforts are also geared at making one feel better about oneself. Her mission of image restoration was integral in maintaining her own reputation as well that of her husband.
The authors of this article also point to a connection between publicity and public memory. Public memory is defined as a “body of beliefs about the past that help a society understand its past, present and, by implication, its future. Although militarily, Custer may be considered, by some, to be a failure at Little Big Horn, he remains in the collective American memory because he fit a heroic mold and represented a public sacrifice in the westward expansion (Manifest Destiny) of the United States. Mrs. Custer bolstered this public memory in many ways—donating personal items from Custer’s military career, writing articles about life in the west, sought compensation for other Last Stand widows and children, wore widow’s clothing to remind the nation of the personal cost of her husband’s sacrifice, controlled the images that were published of Custer and even refused to let a statue of Custer remain in public because she felt that it was not representative enough of Custer the individual.
Elizabeth Custer, a pioneer in public relations, preserving her husband’s memory by pen, voice, and deed.