On April 17, 1998, President Bill Clinton addressed the nation from the oval office to apologize for his personal misconduct in an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and to rally support and trust of his innocence of perjury accusations surrounding a lawsuit that sprung from the affair. The question becomes, was Clinton’s speech effective? In a four minute speech, televised at 10:00 PM on all major networks and appearing in newspapers across the nation the next day, was the President able to convince the nation that he was willing to take responsibility for his actions, that he did not lie and conceal information under oath, that he should not be impeached, and that we, as a nation, should interpret the accusations as a private issue and focus our attention on more public matters? Was Bill Clinton’s speech effective?
In order to evaluate the answer to these questions, we must come to an understanding of the speech and its background, and we must build a model from which to evaluate. We must make a historical analysis to understand in what context the apology was written, to whom it was addressing, the background of the speaker, and the response of the audience. We must then make a descriptive analysis to understand the speech as a piece of rhetoric; we must identify the rhetorical components from which the speech was built. Finally, before evaluating the speech, we must build a critical perspective from which we can combine the historical and descriptive analysis to assess the rhetoric’s overall effect and success. Upon evaluation, we can see that Bill Clinton was successful in making a sincere apology to our nation. Although public opinion remained divided, and although the Republicans continued to search for evidence leading to the President’s impeachment, the majority of the nation agreed to allow Clinton to take responsibility for the affair, to understand his reasoning for concealing information, and to return their attention to more public matters.
In order to assess the effectiveness of Bill Clinton’s apology on August 17, 1998, we must first make a historical analysis; we must gain an understanding of the historical context from which the speech arose. In 1995 the President had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, one of his White House interns. On January 17, 1998, Paula Corbin Jones filed a sexual misconduct lawsuit against Clinton. In the deposition of this lawsuit, Clinton stated that he did not have a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and that he never remembered being with her alone. The President did not know, however, that Linda Tripp, one of Lewinsky’s associates, had tape-recorded several conversations of Lewinsky describing her affair with the President.
In response to Clinton’s apparent cover-up, Kenneth W. Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel, began investigating the President’s relationship with Lewinsky and whether or not his denial of the affair in the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit was under oath. On January 26, 1998, Clinton testified under oath to the accusations brought up by Kenneth Starr. Once again he denied the affair stating, “I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” (Clinton A1) This denial continued for seven months as Starr gathered evidence of the relationship and investigated Clinton’s obstruction of justice. Evidence of perjury in his testimony would be grounds for impeachment. By August 17, 1998, Clinton was ready to admit and apologize for his sexual misconduct, and he needed to rally the support of the nation in understanding his innocence in the perjury accusations. He addressed the nation from the oval office just after 10:00 PM, admitting his inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, denying obstruction of justice or any other crime, and asking everyone to move on and turn their attention to issues of public interest.
Through this speech, Clinton was trying to reach those members of the public who believed that he had had an inappropriate affair with Lewinsky and had lied about it under oath; those people who believed, as Kenneth Starr, that he should be impeached. In reaching the public, he intended to have an effect on his main source of competition, the Republicans, who believed that if evidence were found showing obstruction of justice, impeachment should follow. If he could persuade his public opposition that he was taking full responsibility for his inappropriate affair, that he did not withhold information or commit any crime, and that it was a private issue being inappropriately investigated, he would gain the support of the nation. In gaining support of the nation, he could prevent the Republican Party from voting to impeach him. As we are a democratic nation, the Republicans must represent the people. If the people, by vote, support the president, Republican Congressmen could not, in theory, move to impeach.
The public’s response to the speech remained divided, but as a whole seemed to favor Clinton’s side. Reported in a New York Times/CBS News Poll conducted immediately after the speech, 63% of the public felt that the nation should move beyond the scandal, 18% felt that Clinton should resign as President, and 12% felt that he should be impeached (Verhovek A16). This showed that the majority of the nation responded positively to what Clinton said. In his speech, the President calls for the nation to move beyond the issue, stating. “Now it is time, in fact it is past time, to move on.” (Clinton A12). According to the post-speech poll, the majority of the public accepted this proposal to forgive and forget.
Although this information was evident, interviews with the public conducted by New York Times reporter Sam Howe Verhovek after the speech showed that the nation’s perceptions of their President remained divided. Several citizens reported feeling that the President’s actions were embarrassing, amoral, that they reflected the nation’s problems as a whole, and that they discredited the presidency. Reflecting these opinions, Atlanta lawyer Jim Eichelberger stated, “I think it was typical Clinton- dishonest, blaming others, just what I anticipated. He owes it to the Democratic Party and the American people to resign.” (Verhovek A16) Another portion of the population supported Clinton’s claims and agreed that once he took responsibility for his actions, it was time for the nation to drop the issue and move on. Verhovek reported on a group of citizens dining at a café in Los Angeles, saying that “they agreed completely with the President that the nation had much more pressing problems than his sex life, …” (Verhovek A16).
The Republicans, however, seemed to have a more negative perception of the speech and its effect. In reporting on the Republican response, New York Times reporter Kevin Sack found this: “Several legislators said the televised speech did nothing to change their feelings that impeachment should be considered if it is merited by a report they expected to be sent to Congress by Kenneth W. Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel” (Sack A16). Individual Republican legislators reported feeling that the speech was not factual, not repentant, provided no defense for his misconduct, and that they had not changed their opinion that, without strong evidence in support of his innocence on the perjury accusations, impeachment should be pursued.
The reason for the continued division of public opinion regarding the acceptance of Clinton’s apology and the lack of support on the Republicans part can be found in the President’s past. Clinton has a history of lying and making up for it by apologizing. In an article written by Todd S. Purdum the day after the speech, political scientist and psychoanalyst Stanley A. Renhon was quoted saying this about Clinton’s past mistakes:
“His errors, when acknowledged, are the result of basically correct efforts gone temporarily awry, misunderstandings that, if one knew more of what he knew, would disappear or be mitigated, or else are attributed to naivete and inexperience.” (Purdum A12) Here it becomes clear that the speech he delivered apologizing to the nation for his affair and accused perjury in the Lewinsky case could be just another apology for another political mistake or misconduct.
Several examples in Clinton’s past show that he has indeed bent the truth and made up for it by apologizing and diverting blame. When he was first in office as the President, Clinton promised a tax cut and new spending measures, but he raised taxes instead. Two years later he had to apologize to the nation and, in doing so, he put the blame for the tax increase on Congress. Later, he stated that he had never smoked marijuana or broken any law, yet evidence was found that he had in fact smoked. In 1992, the President was accused of having an affair with Gennifer Flowers and he denied the accusations, yet in the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit related to the Lewinsky affair, Clinton admitted to having sexual conduct with Flowers. It can be seen through these three examples that Clinton has a history of political lying and trying to retaliate by apologizing and placing the blame on others. The nature of the author and his background in lying and apologizing could be one reason for the continued division of public opinion.
Knowing its historical background, we must now gain a better understanding for the speech itself and for those components of the speech that make it either an effective or ineffective piece of rhetoric; we must make a descriptive analysis of the speech. We begin this analysis by understanding the purpose of the speech. In addressing the nation from the oval office, Bill Clinton sought to apologize for his affair, to gain trust in his innocence of perjury convictions, and to convince the audience that it was time for them to take action by moving their attention to matters of public interest. The purpose of the speech was to gain trust and support from the public, and in doing so, to protect him from impeachment. The President portrayed this central message through the structure of his main points and the language used.
Clinton organized his speech in a way that sent three main points across to his audience, and these three points combined to make his central argument. In the introduction to his speech, the President overviews that he has testified truthfully and that he is willing to take responsibility for his public and private actions. He gains the attention of the audience and he sets the stage to convince them that he is a truthful person. Clinton then goes on to make his first point that he did in fact have a relationship with Lewinsky, that he misled people by “not volunteering information” in the testimonies and interviews, and that he is willing to take full responsibility for his actions. In doing this, he was trying to gain respect from the audience so that they would trust him. Evidence had been collected that the Lewinsky affair had in fact happened, so the President had to come out and admit the affair to the public. In doing so, he was being trustworthy about his first mistake, the affair. If he were trustworthy of his first mistake, then he must be trustworthy of his second mistake, or so the speech sought to portray.
After gaining the attention of the audience and admitting his faults to gain trust, Clinton tried to give reasoning for his concealment and perjury convictions. He starts by saying, “I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors.” (Clinton A12) He then goes on to say that he “did not volunteer information” for four reasons: he was protecting himself from public embarrassment, he was protecting his family, he was protecting the questioning of the lawsuit surrounding the affair, and he was worried about a private investigation from the past. By gaining trust from the audience that he did not commit perjury and regretted his sexual misconduct, and by convincing the audience that he had legitimate reasoning for the silence surrounding his accusations, the speech could rally support for the President and make the public accept his central message.
The third main point that Clinton made in his speech was that the investigation and the accusations brought up against him were a private matter and did not belong in public hands. This being the case, we should all move on and focus our interests elsewhere. He tells us, “It’s nobody’s business but ours. Even Presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life.” (Clinton A12) Here the President is summing up that the issue is one of private concern and should be dealt with only within his own family. He reiterates that he has taken responsibility for his actions, that he has taken his part in moving beyond the spectacle by accepting responsibility, and that it is now the nation’s turn to take their action by accepting the issue as private and moving on. After making these three points, the President concludes the speech saying this: “And so tonight I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century.” (Clinton A12) In ending his speech, he makes a call to the nation to take action and move beyond the affair.
The second way that Clinton portrayed his message to the audience was through the language that he used. It became obvious what the main points were through his choice of words, through his use of repetition, and through his use of a fortiori and enthymeme. Clinton chose words that had a lot of meaning, words that made the audience feel like he was a person with feelings and that his apology was sincere. He states that the affair “constituted a critical lapse in judgement and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.” (Clinton A12) This statement contains language that puts feeling into his apology. By making the judgement “critical”, by making the failure “personal”, and by making himself “solely and completely responsible” he is hoping the audience would feel that he is sincere in his apology. Secondly, in trying to convince the audience that the issue was private, he states that the affair was between himself, his family, and his God. By connecting the accusations to his family and his God, he truly makes the affair personal and private. The third effective choice of words in his apology was in his conclusion, when he called the affair a “spectacle”. With this choice of words, he describes the affair not as a legal accusation or matter of legitimate public concern, but instead as a huge, overdrawn “spectacle”.
Clinton secondly made use of language by using repetition to express his main points. He states that, “this has gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people.” (Clinton A12) He repeats the word “private” over and over again throughout the speech. He states toward the end of the speech that we, as a nation, have “real opportunities to seize, real problems to solve, real security matters to face.” (Clinton A12). And then finally in conclusion, he asks the nation to “return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century.” (Clinton A12) Through these examples of repetition, the idea that the issue had been blown out of proportion, that it was a private matter, and that there were other more important matters to focus our attention on was engrained in the listener’s head. The President’s use of repetition added to his central message, that we should all forgive and forget, and it made these ideas enter the listeners heads repeatedly so that they would become a part of the audience’s own thoughts.
The final use of language that Clinton implemented in his speech was a combination of a fortiori and enthymeme. When explaining the reasons that he did not volunteer information, the President tries to make the audience make a connection and an assumption that he is innocent of any perjury accusations. He states that in the past he was questioned in a politically inspired lawsuit, which had been dismissed. He then gives an example of a different independent counsel investigation, twenty years ago, which found no evidence of wrongdoing on his part. By stating that he has been accused and found innocent of similar accusations twice in the past, he is making the audience form a connection in their mind that if he was innocent once, and then innocent again, he must be innocent this third time. This is an example of both an enthymeme, language that makes the audience complete the idea in their head (the idea that he is indeed innocent again) and the use of a fotiori, language that makes the audience assume that if something happened in the past, it is likely to happen again. Rather than being told, this language allows the audience to make assumptions for themselves. It is hard to refute assumptions that one forms himself. We can see that, through Clinton’s use of enthomine, aforseori, repetition, and choice of words, that he sought to make the audience understand, interpret, and believe his central message. If they believed that he was sincere, that he was innocent, and that the accusations against him should have been kept private, the speech would be successful. It would meet its purpose of calling the audience to support him, to move on, and to prevent impeachment.
Clinton’s apology sought to have an effect on the audience; this effect was a response from the audience showing understanding and agreement to follow his suggested course of action. We can see in the rhetoric that the main purpose of this speech was for Clinton to gain trust and support in his testimony in order to prevent impeachment and convince the audience to move beyond the spectacle to more important, national issues. To evaluate the effectiveness of the speech in meeting this purpose, it was necessary to not only identify the purpose but also to look at the ways in which Clinton portrayed his message, through structure and language.
Upon completing the historical and descriptive analysis, we should have a complete understanding for the speech itself, for the purpose of the speech, and for the historical background and targeted audience; we must now set up a model through which to evaluate the speech. Because the rhetoric was written for the purpose of having a specific effect on the audience, we must evaluate the speech on the basis of its effects. I have chosen to evaluate this speech based on the psychosocial approach to criticism because the speech itself serves the purpose of effecting the minds and actions of the American public. More specifically, I am basing my evaluation of this speech based on four components to the psychosocial approach to criticism.
I will first base my evaluation on the rhetor’s ethos. I will asses whether President Clinton, through his speech, associated himself as credible, made himself look sincere, and placed the blame on someone or something else. I will also evaluate whether the President identified with the audience’s values, experiences, and attitudes. In order to have an effect on the audience, to make the audience see and connect with his purpose, the President should have established credibility and identified with the audience. If he wanted them to accept his apology, he had to sound sincere. If he wanted them to trust him and respond to his call to action, he had to take the blame and guilt away from himself. These components of the rhetor’s ethos should be present if the speech had a successful effect on the audience.
The next two components of the psychosocial approach to analysis that I will base my evaluation on are the rhetor’s use of language and, in connection with the language, I will asses the elaboration likelihood model. I will assess how the language had an effect on the audience and how it put feeling into the speech to make the audience feel a certain way, think a certain way, and take a certain action. The elaboration likelihood model says that rhetoric should have a central message, a quality argument presented making an effected call to action. Further, a successful piece of rhetoric will make reference to peripheral associations, related to the central message, which will make the audience think about, interpret, and elaborate on the information themselves. This will add to the effect of the message and make the audience want to follow the call to action. An apology would not be successful if it did not make a main point, if it did not make the audience come to a better understanding with the rhetor, and if it did not have an effect on the audience. In summary, the elaboration likelihood model will look at the speech based on its effect of getting the audience to listen to the message, to care about and form an opinion about the message, and to elaborate and make associations based on the message. These things will cause a change in attitude, and they will lead to the intended action.
The final component to my evaluation will look at the actual effect of the speech, based on the audience response. A successful piece of rhetoric, based on the psychosocial approach, will make the audience feel a certain way in order to cause a change in attitude. I will assess whether Clinton’s speech made the audience change their mind, feel differently about his actions, and want to accept his apology and respond to his call to action. An apology, if successful, should make the audience change their mind and understand what went wrong and why it went wrong so that they can forgive. An apology should also convince people to support the person making the apology. The effectiveness of the speech can be evaluated based on whether or not the audience supported the rhetor after the apology.
Based on this critical perspective, a perspective that the nature of the rhetoric calls for, I can make a positive evaluation of Bill Clinton’s apology to the nation on August 17, 1998. I can look at the four components to my psychosocial approach to criticism, and I can assess those components based on the historical and descriptive analysis of the speech. Upon integration of the components of my analysis I can conclude that, although there remained to be some division of opinion and political unrest surrounding the Clinton affair and its accusations, the speech was effective. It was written for a purpose of having specific effects on the audience, and those effects can be found with the critical perspective that I have developed.
Bill Clinton set up an ethos that contributed to the effectiveness of the speech; he targeted the right audience, and he gave himself credibility by making himself sound sincere and by placing the blame on his opponents through his use of structure and language. As we saw in the historical analysis, Clinton addressed his speech, broadcasting it live on major television networks, to the United States citizens. In doing so, he sought to have an effect on the people. Addressing the public was an appropriate decision because if the speech had its intended effect on the audience, they would not vote to impeach him and, subsequently, the Republican legislators who represented the people could not vote to impeach. The President chose the right audience to target and he identified with them by addressing the apology towards them.
Clinton also sounded sincere and established credibility through his use of structure. As explained in detail in the descriptive analysis, the structure of the speech sent a distinct message to the nation. It told the people that Clinton was willing to take personal responsibility, that he was trustworthy, that he had legitimate reasons for his misleading testimony, and that as an individual person, he deserved to have a private life. Clinton was able to connect with the audience by sending this message with sincerity, he was able to establish credibility by sounding trustworthy and by taking responsibility for his actions, and he was finally able to place the blame of his misleading testimony on the issue of privacy. All of these components, found within the structure and the language of the speech, comprise the ethos that Bill Clinton established in his speech. This ethos is one way in which the speech had an effect on the audience.
The second component to my critical model was his choice of strong words and his use of repetition. His choice of strong words put a feeling of humanness and sincerity into his apology. Through his use of repetition, Clinton made the audience think that the issue had been blown out of proportion, that it was a private matter, and that there were other more important matters on which to focus their attention. It becomes obvious that the use of language in the speech was effective in making the audience feel that the apology was sincere and that the actions they are being asked to take were appropriate.
The apology was also successful in following the elaboration likelihood model, the third component to my psychosocial approach to critical analysis. A central message, one that has already been established, was portrayed through the structure of the speech. Clinton’s use of enthymeme and a fortiori were a critical component to bringing in peripheral associations to make the audience elaborate on the message, integrate ideas, and complete thoughts leading to a responded acceptance of his apology and support. His use of a fortiori made the audience elaborate to assume that he was innocent in the past and so must be innocent now. The use of enthymeme made the audience complete the aforseori by themselves. By making the audience bring in the peripheral associations of his past innocence increasing the probability of his present innocence, Clinton made the audience form conclusions on their own. He got into the minds of his audience and made them elaborate on the information that he presented, so that they would form their own opinions of his innocence. If the idea of his innocence came from within their own minds, they would in turn accept his apology, support him, and take the actions that he was asking of them.
For the final component to my evaluation, I will look at the audience’s response to the speech. When looking at the audience response in the historical analysis, we can see that the speech was in fact successful. Although the public opinion remained divided, as was indicated in the interviews conducted after the speech, and the Republican legislators continued to hold a negative perception of Clinton and his accusations, the speech was effective in achieving acceptance and support from the people as a whole. This is supported by the New York Times/CBS News Poll conducted the day following the speech, which showed that 63% of the public agreed that the issue of the Monica Lewinsky affair and its related accusations should be dropped, and the nation should move beyond the scandal. It is also evident today that the apology was successful because Bill Clinton is still in office and the issue of the scandal is no longer one of public interest.
The continued division of public opinion and the lack of support by the Republican legislators can be explained by Clinton’s past. As we have already seen, the President has a long past of lying and placing the blame for his own errs elsewhere. Those groups of people who were not effected by his Monica Lewinsky apology may not have been effected due to this developing trend. This being the case, it is not the rhetoric itself that was unsuccessful in gaining their support and in calling them to action; instead it was Clinton’s past history that was blocking their acceptance to his apology. The evidence is not available to compare the audience before and after the speech, but knowing Clinton’s past, it is plausible to make the assumption that some of the people who were not effected by the speech may not have been so due to this past.
In conclusion, the Bill Clinton apology presented on August 17, 1998 can be evaluated as a successful speech in its overall effectiveness. After making a thorough historical and critical analysis to build an understanding for the speech, I was able to develop a critical perspective from which to evaluate it. I chose the psychosocial approach to critical analysis because the rhetoric sought to make connections between an author and an audience, to portray feelings and change attitudes, and to make the audience think, elaborate, and respond to a call to action. Upon evaluation, it became obvious that Clinton’s speech was effective in each of the four components of my critical perspective. His speech was effective in its overall purpose; the majority of the nation agreed to allow Clinton to take responsibility for the affair, to understand his concealment of information, and to return public attention to public matters. This effectiveness shows that Bill Clinton was indeed successful in making a sincere apology to our nation.