A Dilemma-Centered Analysis of
Clinton's August 17th Apologia:
Implications for Rhetorical Theory and Method
Draft. Not for Publication.
Not for Quotation. All Rights Reserved.
On August 17, 1998 President William Jefferson Clinton
addressed the nation from the same room in the White House where, earlier
that day, he had admitted in videotaped grand jury testimony that he had
concealed the truth of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky from his
family, his closest colleagues, and from the American people. Reaction to
the four and a half minute speech by the media, and by politicians on both
sides of the aisle, was nearly uniform. Clinton had failed at achieving
his objectives. Worse yet, he had reinforced doubts about his character
and about his ability to govern.
More than any other event in the
Clinton/Lewinsky drama, the August 17th speech occasioned prolonged and
intense commentary on CRTNET, the official listserv of the National
Communication Association. Although un-refereed, the CRTNET colloquy
nevertheless teaches us a good deal about the Clinton speech and about ourselves as a field. A few brave souls ventured the opinion that
the speech was "not awful" (Benoit, Aug. 19), that it was well
crafted (Brown, Aug. 26), and even that it was an "excellent a address"
(McGee, Aug. 19), although most contributors seemed to accept
Richard Katula's early judgment of anger-induced ineptitude and his
subsequent roundup of expert and bipartisan political support for that
judgment. (Katula, Aug. 18; Aug. 25) Regrettably y, however, there was
little in the way of sustained analysis of Clinton's rhetorical situation.
Without it such judgments as were offered based on media commentary,
political reaction, overnight poll data, psychohistory, or on the current
state of apologia theory stood highly vulnerable to refutation.
In what follows I present a
dilemma-centered analysis of the Clinton speech with a view as well toward
advancing the current state of theory and method in the rendering of
rhetorical judgments. The analysis, it should be emphasized, is focused on
pragmatic questions of strategic appropriateness: i.e., did Clinton do as
well as could be expected given his very difficult rhetorical situation?
Were his remarks appropriate not only to the immediate situation but to
the challenges that lay ahead? Given this focus, concerns about Clinton's
truthfulness, or ethics, or character are considered relevant only in so
far as they were likely to enter into the thinking of his audience(s). In
this respect, the essay has much in common with Forbes Hill's
neo-Aristotelian celebration of Richard Nixon's Nov. 3, 1969 "Vietnamization"
speech (Hill, 1972), an analysis much maligned at the time for having
failed to deal with what other rhetorical critics believed were the more
central questions of truthfulness and social consequences. (E.g. Campbell,
Consistent with the aims of advancing
theory and method, the essay comments from time to time on other reactions
to the speech, and particularly on CRTNET reactions. These varied
predictably with the ideological predispositions of the contributors. But,
lest it appear that only ideology was at work in the colloquy,
Katula was there to remind his critics that Democrats, not just
Republicans, had panned this speech, including Democrats who were
otherwise highly supportive of Clinton.
Benoit, severely critical of Clinton's conduct in the Lewinsky affair and
subsequent cover-up, nevertheless enjoined his colleagues to separate the
past conduct from what he now called a "pretty good" speech.
(Benoit, Aug. 26)
More troubling, perhaps, was the
capacity of contributors to derive seemingly equal and opposite
conclusions from the same evidence. Was the near unanimity of Beltway
dissatisfaction with the speech impressive? No, said Nelson, what was
truly impressive w as the continued public support for the President and
for the explanations he offered in the speech despite the
influence on public opinion normally wielded by the political elite.
But what of the fact that leading Democrats, including even Clinton's
closest advisors, confessed to having been disappointed with the speech?
"No surprise," was Nelson's response. Given that they had
stood behind Clinton's earlier denials of wrongdoing , they now felt
used, abused, embarrassed, and rightly so. "In light of this, it is
indeed surprising that they didn't react even more negatively than the
Republicans." But what of the overnight poll data cited by Katula (CRTNET,
August 25), showing that public opinion had turned sour on the
President, his overall approval rating in one poll dropping from 70% to
61% immediately after the speech, and public judgments of his
trustworthiness and ethics sinking to 28% and 19% respectively?
Nelson again put a different spin on the data.
This is evidence of failure with the public? Most president's
should be so lucky to have even 61% approval after the
"honeymoon" period! And to have such ratings when most of
those polled wouldn't even trust Clinton with a roll of nickels?
C'mon, these polls are nothing short of amazing. Furthermore, given
the nature of public opinion, a drop of 9% is nearly negligible; we
only need look back at the rapidity of George Bush's precipitous drop
from overwhelming approval to overwhelming disapproval and election
loss to recognize this. And why was the speech so successful? I think
the evidence for this is in the polls just cited. (Nelson, August 27;
see also Benoit, Aug. 26)
The controversy on CRTNET points up
the insufficiency of effects data for purposes of rhetorical assessment.
In the absence of thoroughgoing situational analysis, poll data are too
easily bent to the prejudices of their interpreters. This is not to say th
at the data are of no value. One of the more consistent findings over a
period of months was that respondents overwhelmingly approved of Clinton's
performance as President even as they strongly disapproved of his cheating
and lying. In McGee's words, they saw Clinton as a "high
competence," "low virtue" president. (McGee, Aug. 31) This
finding, which held up through the August 17th speech, is surely an
important clue to Clinton's rhetorical situation at the time of the
speech. But it neither explains the speech nor provides a very clear
indication of its success or failure.
Neither does psychohistory explain
the speech. Influenced by David Maraniss' First In His Class,
Katula ventured the opinion that Clinton's alleged failure to address his
wrongdoing in a "personal" way (as opposed to placing it in a
political or le gal framework) reflected a longstanding inability to meet
personal conflicts head on. (Katula, October 14). Maraniss would later in
1998 rush out a psychohistorical analysis of the speech entitled The
Clinton Enigma, again providing explanations for alleged ineptitude. (Maraniss,
1998). For example, Clinton's attack on the Starr investigation was
"the almost inevitable result of a personality that explained and
rationalized compulsively." (Maraniss, pp. 98-9). However, a more
parsimonious explanation is in order: techniques like attacking one's
attackers are commonplace in the history of political apologias and
frequently effective; they form part of a logic of vindication that
succeeds by invidious comparison between a vulnerable attacker and the
person attacked. (Ware and Linkugel, 1973). One needn't invoke Clinton's
childhood or early political education: the fact is that Kenneth Starr was
an object of contempt in most peoples' eyes, and the Clinton team had
profited in the past from deriding the Starr investigation.
But, just as psychohistorical
explanation fails to satisfy, so too does the current state of apologia
theory. Asked in a CRTNET exchange to clarify what he meant by rhetorical
theory, Benoit acknowledged that a great deal of it bore out the old adage
that "All a rhetorician's rules, teach him but to name his
tools". (Benoit, Nov. 3)
Just so. In his initial CRTNET
response to the Clinton apologia, Benoit identified Clinton's appeals to a
right of privacy as "attempted transcendence." (Benoit, August
19) But providing the label neither explains nor justifies Benoit's
judgment of the speech as "not awful." Wayne Booth long ago
lamented the genre critic's tendency to substitute classification for
clarification, and Benoit here offers an unwitting example. Neither does
it help much to learn that a given strategy works some of the time. I n
his CRTNET post of November 3, 1998, Benoit observed that, when
"caught," corrective action is "an often effective
option." But so hedged a generalization leaves entirely plausible its
logical opposite: when caught, corrective action is often an ineffective option. What guidance, then, can the apologist or the
critic glean from such a vacuous theorem?
Much the same critique can be leveled
at crisis management theory in the field of public relations. The New
York Times reported in its Arts and Leisure section that Clinton's
August 17th speech "has become just about every spin doctor's
favorite example of precisely what a celebrity in crisis should never
do....: allow short-run emotion to do long-term damage." (Sharkey,
1998, p. 15AR) By contrast, actor Hugh Grant's explanation to Jay Leno on
the Tonight Show for consorting with a prostitute was the
"right answer" to the "right question" in the
"right forum." (p. 15AR) But Grant hadn't been defending himself
for seven months, so that when he said "I think you know what's a
good thing and what's a bad thing, and I did a bad thing," he wasn't
being blatantly inconsistent. Once again, the situations weren't