A Theoretical Analysis of Bill Clinton’s Rhetoric

A dive into the speech practices of Bill Clinton during his rise and fall as president.

President Bill Clinton, speaks at Clark College in Vancouver Monday March 21, 2016. Clinton is speaking on behalf of his wife and Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. (Natalie Behring/ The Columbian)

William “Bill” Clinton is known by a great many Americans for a great many reasons — as professor of law, a governor of Arkansas, a president of America, a philanthropist of the Clinton Foundation. Clinton has long been in the public spotlight and has been met with a wide array of successes and challenges along the way. He remains to this day an influential public figure in America, and his speech writing and orating skills have certainly helped him to build and maintain a high public approval rating, even in the wake of a presidential scandal.

In 1991, Clinton ran a presidential election campaign against incumbent President George H.W. Bush, a veteran, businessman, politician. At the time, Bush’s public approval ratings were low, mainly due to his failure to keep many of his 1988 campaign promises. Clinton’s success as a governor in Arkansas, matched with his skill as a rhetor, assisted him in winning not only his party’s presidential nomination in 1991, and later the general election, but also aided him in maintaining high public approval ratings — -allowing him the chance at a second term in office.

Throughout his campaign and his presidency, Clinton employed various rhetorical strategies to make his speeches and public addresses effective in winning support, in restoring national unity and confidence, as well as in persuading the American public towards supporting his platform and agenda.

This is an analysis detail just a few of his effectively employed rhetorical devices throughout his public life, mainly focussing on five speeches and public addresses in his time leading up to and acting as the president of the United States. While the main focus of this analysis is the seasoned, second term rhetor Bill Clinton, speeches from his previous term in Office are used to set the stage and draw continuity between his time in Office — establishing a clear overall perspective of his rhetorical style.

The analysis will begin with his campaign announcement (1991), then move consecutively on to his nomination acceptance speech (1996), his inaugural address (1997), a State of The Union address (1996), ending with crisis and image repair rhetoric (1998). Preceding applications of rhetorical devices will be a context of the rhetorical exigence (the reason for speech), the audience (who the speech is aimed at), and constraints (constraints on the efficacy of the rhetoric). Proceeding individual speech analyses, extrapolation will be made on the overall efficacy as Clinton as a rhetor.

Clinton’s 1991 presidential campaign announcement speech aimed to establish his policy platform, as well as form a connection with his national constituency in order to garner support for election. The main challenge his campaign faced was his incumbent opponent, President George W.H. Bush. While Bush held a relatively high approval rating in his first term, he was nonetheless known for not following up on some of his major policy proposals and promises, especially those regarding protecting the middle class from higher taxes. In his campaign announcement speech, Clinton uses positive, policy-focused, narrative-style rhetoric to combat his powerful campaigning opponent, and was later met with success.

Standing in front of the Little Rock, Arkansas old state capitol building, Clinton, then 11-year governor of Arkansas, delivered a positive, upbeat speech announcing his campaign for the 1991 presidential election. His announcement speech is crafted to give his audience a positive outlook on his platform and his candidacy. This manner of deliverance and its positive outcome can be analyzed through the lens of the Rhetorical Functional Theory, which states that campaign rhetoric can serve three functions: to acclaim, to attack, or to defend (Benoit, 2008, p.5). The rhetoric that acclaims seeks to inform the candidate’s audience of his/her benefits; attacks seek to provide information that could hurt the audience’s perceptions of the opposing candidate; and defenses are used to rebut opposition attacks.

In his announcement speech, Clinton employs acclaims, attacks, and defenses. He begins his speech boasting (acclaim) about the successes he and the Arkansas community has had: “I’m proud of what we’ve done here in Arkansas together. Proud of the work we’ve done to become a laboratory of democracy and innovation…[we have a] solid middle-class values of work, will, family, individual responsibility, and community.” (Clinton, 1991) He then turns to blame (attack) to the current presidential administration (to which his campaign opponent is the head): “[We are] threatened by an administration that refuses to take care of our own, has turned its back on the middle class, and is afraid to change while the world is changing.” (Clinton) In response to opponent attacks, he later states in his announcement: “We’re not going to get positive change just by Bush-bashing.” (Clinton)

Functional Theory also proposes that winning candidates acclaim more and attack less in campaigns (Benoit, 2008, p.14). This is further proven as accurate by comparing announcements from Clinton (1991) and his 1996 campaign opponent Dole (1995). (Clinton’s 1991 speech is used to compare, as he made no official or unofficial announcement for the 1996 cycle. Same goes for Bush not announcing in 1991.) In comparing the candidates, one finds that Clinton uses a total of 14 acclaims, 11 attacks, and 3 defenses, while Dole uses a total of 4 acclaims, 8 attacks, and 3 defenses.

Clinton’s use of acclaims, attacks, and defenses establishes a positive, strong, calculated voice for the candidate, while also shaping a policy platform. His repetitive focus on the middle-class is strategic, appearing in his acclaims, attacks, and defenses. This focus is important because too many Americans, President Bush’s empty promises of lower taxation and lack of support for the middle class is a relevant issue. Clinton’s attack is particularly striking, for it calls the Bush administration out on not caring for its own and turning its back on the middle class. This rhetorical focus within Clinton’s acclaims and attacks is relevant, and thus advances the efficacy of his speech.

Another key aspect of Functional Theory states that winning campaign rhetors tend to be more policy-focussed than character-focussed in their speeches (Benoit, 2008, p.5). The rhetoric that is policy focussed is aimed at informing the audience of the candidate’s proposed policy platform in order to garner support, while character-based rhetoric is aimed to win support by showing off a candidate’s character qualities. This aspect of Functional Theory also reigns true when comparing that of the Clinton (1991) Dole (1995) announcement speeches. While Dole noticeably speaks more about his character than his policy, and where Clinton speaks more about policy than his character. While Clinton proposes a new taxation policy aimed to benefit the “forgotten” middle class, Dole reassures his audience: “My friends, I have the experience. I’ve been tested, tested in many ways…I am not afraid to lead.” (Dole, 1995) In this case, Clinton and Dole both respectively face the challenge of an incumbent candidate, who has experience and support already. However, Clinton’s policy-focussed campaign announcement sets him on a positive projectile towards winning party nomination and the election, while Dole’s character-focussed campaign might have appeared weak against a successful incumbent.

Clinton also makes use of narrative-style rhetoric in his announcement speech. In applying Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm to this political context: this kind of language frames a candidate’s experiences in the form of a narrative, with a distinct story arch and relevance, as well as truth (Friedman & Gutgold, 2010, p.5). This theory is based on the understanding that humans relate well to coherent and honest storytelling. In this instance, Clinton employs narrative to speak of his roots, his connections with his local Kansas audience, and his established morals.

“Newly half a century ago, I was born not far from here in Hope, Arkansas. My mother had been widowed three months before I was born. I was raised for four years by my grandparents, while she went back to nursing school. They didn’t have much money. I spent a lot of time with my great-grandparents. By any standard, they were poor. But we didn’t blame other people. We took responsibility for ourselves and for each other because we knew we could do better. I was raised to believe In the American dream, in family values, in individual responsibility, and in the obligation of government to help people who were doing the best they could.”

In addition, he employs narrative to speak to him and his community’s successes, while setting a tone for future work:

“Over 25 years ago, I had a professor at Georgetown who taught me that America was the greatest country in history because our people believed in and acted on two simple ideas: first, that the future can be better than the present; and second, that each of us has a personal, moral responsibility to make it so. That fundamental truth has guided my public career, and brings me here today. It is what we’ve devoted ourselves to here in Arkansas. I’m proud of what we’ve done here in Arkansas together. Proud of the work we’ve done to become a laboratory of democracy and innovation. And proud that we’ve done it without giving up the things we cherish and honor most about our way of life. Solid, middle-class values of work, Will, family, individual responsibility, and community.”

Both of these short narratives connect the candidate with his local audience by talking about their similar roots in Arkansas, as well as connects with his national audience by speaking of American values of hard work, democracy, and innovation. In this way, Clinton’s use of coherent and honest narrative advance the efficacy of his announcement speech.

President Clinton ran largely uncontested for Democratic nomination in 1996, as an incumbent candidate with a high public approval rating. In his 1996 Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech, President Bill Clinton utilizes local current events, imagery, and feminist-style narrative to make relevant to his party certain issues and to propose policy, as well as to depict a vision of his continued leadership, and to connect and mobilize his audience.

Clinton uses current events that are local to the Chicago area (where the acceptance speech took place) to frame the importance of particular issues and policy, therein demonstrating a rhetorical situation. A rhetorical situation can be understood as a situation that demands or suggests an opportunity for appropriate application or creation of discourse (Bitzer, 1996, p. 2). In his acceptance speech, Clinton uses local happenings and situations to bring attention to issues such as community economic development, the need for comprehensive foreign policy, and active discrimination problems.

After Clinton flaunts America’s recent economic successes, he proposes legislative reforms for national economic development by referencing Chicago’s economic development strategies: I propose more community development banks, like the South Shore Bank right here in Chicago, to help people in those neighborhoods start their own small businesses. More jobs, more incomes, new markets for America right here at home…” (Clinton, 1996)

In discussing the need for more comprehensive foreign policy, Clinton invites citizens to discuss foreign policy “in the barbershops and the cafes of America, on the plant floors and at the bowling alleys”. (Clinton, 1996)

Furthermore, Clinton tells of the burning of churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as the harassment of African-American Special Forces members at Fort Bragg to demonstrate the relevant issues of discrimination. By using Chicago-local economic and social issues, Clinton draws attention to significant issues, which he means to tackle if voted president. His employment of these situations as a platform for discussing policy demonstrates nation and regional understanding of American societal issues, and thus strengthens his campaign.

President Bill Clinton uses imagery to depict and articulate his vision for leadership with the hopes of mobilizing his audience. Imagery is a tool that can be harnessed to shape the beliefs and actions of a speaker’s audience (McGuire & Garavan, 2014, p.). Clinton effectively employs imagery by incorporating a historical reference, a collective focus and efficacy, and commonly established values.

Towards the opening of his acceptance speech, Clinton uses imagery to articulate an attractive, hopeful vision of his proposed educational platform: “I want to build a bridge to the 21st century in which we expand opportunity through education, where computers are as much a part of the classroom as blackboards, where highly trained teachers demand peak performance from our students, where every 8-year-old can point to a book and say, ‘I can read it myself’” (Clinton, 1996). Clinton optimistically details the expansion of computer usage, the training of challenging educators, and the broadening national literacy as images of how his education policies will affect the nation.

While Clinton’s use of imagery in this instance draws the audience’s attention to the topic of education, it is also practically portraying a tangible product of his proposed education policy. As he continues, Clinton specifies how to reach those articulated goals by proposing tax cuts to benefit the accessibility of college education, incentivizing trade schooling, and encouraging parents to spend more time reading with their kids.

Clinton also uses the images of bridge building and a new century as platforms for his speech, inviting his audience “to resolve to build that bridge to the 21st century”. He explains the importance of respecting past deeds, while pushing for progression to future prospects:“The real choice is whether we will build a bridge to the future or a bridge to the past, about whether we believe our best days are still out there or our best days are behind us, about whether we want a country of people all working together or one where you’re on your own.” (Clinton, 1996)

He later makes use of these images and inclusive pronouns, such as “we” and “us”, to introduce new policy in a manner that invites his constituency into his hopeful leadership narrative, while highlighting common established American values: “I want to build a bridge to the 21st century in which we expand opportunity through education…” (Clinton)

In his use of imagery, Clinton depicts and articulates his vision for leadership with the hopes of mobilizing his audience. His strategic usage of inclusive imagery solidifies support for his campaign platform and effectively tells a narrative of hope in his leadership.

Clinton employs three feminist-style narratives to connect with his audience. Through telling of personal, familial connections to the issues of education, the war on drugs, and economic stress, Clinton expresses that “personal is political”, or personal affairs are political issues (Dow & Tonn, 1993, p.).

As he prepares to delve into policy propositions for advancing education funding and programming on a national level, Clinton speaks of his parenthood experiences before asking his audience to commit to his proposals:

“Let me say to our parents: You have to lead the way. Every tired night you spend reading a book to your child will be worth it many times over. I know Hillary and I still talk about the books we read Chelsea when we were so tired we could hardly stay awake. We still remember them, and more important, so does she”(Clinton, 1996).

In introducing drug safety policy, Clinton states:“…it is very, very painful to me that drug use among young people is up. Drugs nearly killed my brother when he was a young man, and I hate them. He fought back…I’m really proud of him” (Clinton, 1996). In this case, he uses narrative to tell of a personal, tragic event that can in many ways relate to a tragedy that his audience has experienced similarly. Clinton shows he can relate to many Americans’ economic struggle: “My irrepressible, hard-working, always optimistic mother did the best she could for her brother and me, often against stiff odds…from her, I learned that no parent can do it alone. And no parent should have to.” (Clinton)

In his acceptance speech, President Bill Clinton employs local current events, imagery, and feminist-style narrative to connect with his audience, thus making his policy proposals more comprehensive and relatable, to depict a vision of his continued leadership, and to connect and mobilize his audience. His natural and strategic employment of personal narrative advanced the efficacy of his speech.

On January 20, 1997, re-elected President Bill Clinton addressed his national constituency, which was particularly divided after the election cycle. His inaugural address aimed to further promote his policy platform and grow his support, while bridging the gaps between peoples and parties. In his delivery, Clinton utilized relevant historical and political references, as well as a realistic perspective of the state of America to advance his platform and garner support. His manner of address displayed obvious signs of charismatic leadership qualities — qualities that helped him gain power and influence later in Office.

During his inaugural address, Clinton spoke of two key historical and political references that are relevant to his desired path for America, these references demonstrate a rhetorical situation. First, Clinton speaks hopefully of America’s merge into the 21st century. He tells his audience:

“My fellow citizens, at this last Presidential Inauguration of the 20th century, let us lift our eyes toward the challenges that await us in the next century. It is our great good fortune that time and chance have put us not only at the edge of a new century, in a new millennium, but on the edge of a bright new prospect in human affairs, a moment that will define our course and our character for decades to comes. We must keep our old democracy forever young.”(Clinton,1997)

Additionally, he explains how the next generation demands a healthier economy and a more supportive educational system.

Second, he speaks of Martin Luther King’s living hope for equality. Clinton simply remarks that “he told of his dream that one day America would rise up and treat all its citizens as equals before the law and in the heart.” (Clinton, 1997)

Clinton’s articulation of America in the 21st century is clear, hopeful and inspiring, especially matched with the vision of equality. Clinton’s use of these two rhetorical situations was strategic in setting the scene for policy proposals later in the speech, and thus advanced the efficacy of the speech.

Clinton is observed to have used the comic frame when he addresses America’s failures and formulates a call to national action for betterment. The comic frame is a rhetorical framing device that can be used to show human fallibility without victimizing someone, and create a call to action to resolve the issue (Smith & Voth, 2002, p.112). He proclaims, “The divide of race has been America’s constant curse. These forces have nearly destroyed our Nation in the past. They plague us still.” (Clinton, 1997) His language is fierce and tragic — telling of the dark history and continued violence and misunderstanding between races in America. Then he gives his audience hope, and a broad call to action:

“These obsessions cripple both those who hate and of course those who are hated, robbing both of what they might become. We cannot, we will not succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul everywhere. We shall overcome them. And we shall replace them with the generous spirit of a people who feel at home with one another. Our rich texture of racial, religious, and political diversity will be a godsend in the 21st century. Great rewards will come to those who can live together, learn together, work together, forge new ties that bind together.”(Clinton, 1997)

He calls for unity amongst people, for respect of diversity. His employment of the comic frame advances the efficacy of his speech because it speaks a deep, relatable truth and gives hope for the future.

President Clinton’s manner of addressing America’s problems while calling for unity, in addition to his bright, hopeful language used to describe America’s future display his charisma as a speaker and leader. He tells his audience in closing, “…let us lift our eyes towards the challenges that await us in the next century…we must keep our old democracy forever young” (Clinton, 1997). His unifying language, which tells of hope and faith in America, as well as references important common American values, display the signs of rhetoric from charismatic leadership — leaders who have influence and maintain support.

Clinton’s use of relevant historical and political references, as well as a realistic perspective of the state of America to advance his platform and garner support, matched with his charismatic manner, helped advance the efficacy of his speech. His aim to unite and mobilize the American public under his watch started with this speech.

At this time, Bill Clinton was at the end of his first term as President of the United States of America. With three years of struggle and success behind him, he looked forward to another term in office. President Clinton had met many successes in his first term that encouraged many to keep him on the ticket for the Democratic nominee in 1996: under his administration, America had faced the longest economic expansion in its history, had raised its education standards and investment, and connected 95% of American schools, countless businesses and persons to the Internet (FirstGov, The White House). While this address to the joint Congress took place during his first term as president, it was a landmark speech that set the foundation and platform for his second term in office.

1996 was a presidential election year, and the Republican and Democratic parties were very divided. In November of 1995, as well as from December 1995 to early January of 1996, Congress forced a government shutdown, on the basis of partisan division on the issue of American debt. Clinton’s 1996 SOTU took place only twenty days after the second shutdown, meaning that the exigence of the speech, or the prompt of the rhetorical response (Bitzer, p.6), was the division of the parties as well as the necessity to bring the Union together, as is the tradition of the SOTU address. Clinton’s audience were namely the 104th Congress present with the president and through media, the general American public faced a wide divide in politics. In this way, the constraints were the audience’s partisan division and lack of cooperation.

President Clinton’s employment of rhetorical devices such as the comic frame, imagery, and feminine style narrative in 1996 SOTU speech aimed to set a firm platform for this second term in office.

In the 1996 SOTU address, President Clinton uses the comic frame and hopeful language when speaking of the future to critique government action of the past and call for specific political action. Proceeding two recent government shutdowns, Clinton uses the comic frame to address Congress’s partisan division on two specific topics, where he hopefully seeks bipartisan action.

In the opening of his address, Clinton reaffirms the necessity of a modest tax cut to his constituency — a budget plan that was earlier introduced that had been met with little progress in Congress due to the clash of partisan political views. He states that it is a necessity to find bipartisan support of this plan to “give the American people their balanced budget, a tax cut, lower interest rates, and a brighter future”. When speaking of this budget policy, Clinton critiques Congress’s lack of agreement on the issue of the American budget and calling action to move forward in passing budget legislation.

Clinton also urges action on his proposed V-Chip legislation — legislation that, as Clinton puts it, would enable parents to “assume more personal responsibility for their children’s upbringing”. He also invites media leaders to the White House to discuss strategic media programming for children. He addressed the media: “you should create movies and CD’s and television shows you’d want your own children and grandchildren to enjoy.” In addressing Congress about this particular piece of legislation, Clinton critiques not only Congress inaction on media control but also American parents. Exercising the comic frame in this instance, he shapes his assessments of America’s shortcomings as a necessity for action for the sake of future generations of Americans.

In his employment of the comic frame and hopeful language in speaking about the future, Clinton is able to craft a critique of congressional inaction and a motivation to act purposefully. In this way, Clinton does not victimize his constituency but acknowledges their shortcomings. He frames his policy as the purposeful action for his constituency to take in order to create a bright future for America. Clinton’s use of comic frame in his 1996 SOTU address advances the efficacy of his speech.

President Clinton utilizes the imagery of America as a ‘peacemaker’ in past and present contexts as a strategy to be support for his proposed policy on American security. Imagery is a rhetorical tool that can shape an audience’s beliefs and actions (Mcguire& Garavan, 2014, p.437). Clinton employs imagery to articulate his vision of leadership and to propose specific solutions to current world issues that impact American security.

Clinton articulates that America has a history with backing action for the sake of world security. He mentions America standing with “those taking risks for peace”, in the midst of social, political and religious tension in both Northern Ireland and the Middle East. In speaking of the future, Clinton expresses that American security is not a bipartisan issue, but an issue that all can understand. It is America’s strong missions to the world, he states, that advance our security in this modern age. He then introduces three policies that would advance American security: START II Treaty with Russia would cut US nuclear stockpiles, the outlawing of poison gas would prevent tragedies such as the train gassings in Japan, and anti-terrorism legislation would advance the fight terrorism and organized criminals at home and abroad.

Clinton employs imagery to articulate his vision of leadership and to propose solutions to current world issues, as to empower action on legislation to be passed in Congress specifically. This use of imagery is important because it serves as a conduit to unite the parties under the understanding of America as a peacemaker — which is important to everyone at the time — especially considering the divisiveness of the government shutdown.

Clinton employs feminine style narrative, to sum up a collective call for Congress to act more effectively after two government shutdowns. Feminine style narrative, in this rhetorical situation, is aimed to produce a discourse of a personal nature, using personal narrative as evidence for his argument, and encouraging identification between him and America on this issue (Dow & Tonn, p.287). Clinton ends his SOTU speech by calling for legislative leadership to “rise above partisanship”, and to never let another government shutdown occur — as shutdowns have tremendous negative effects on the public, and little purpose other than partisan dispute.

In addressing Congress on their inaction, Clinton tells a narrative of Richard Dean, a Vietnam veteran with more than 22 years working for the Social Security Administration and a hero in the midst of the Oklahoma City attacks. Dean was forced out of office because of the government shutdown and has had trouble ever since. This narrative was genuine and it reflected the frustration of the general American public towards the 104th Congress, which advanced the efficacy of Clinton’s 1996 SOTU address.

Bill Clinton’s use of rhetorical devices such as the comic frame, imagery, and feminine style narrative advanced the efficacy of his 1996 SOTU speech, and set a firm platform for this second term in office — detailing his specific policy package and calling for further support, as well as action on the part of Congress.

In 1998, President Clinton was found to be having an affair with a twenty-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. While at first, he denied the affair altogether at a press conference, he later explained it was true. Motivated by a variety of political and personal factors, this strategy of out-right denial and later confession, though seen by many as inappropriate or unfavorable, resulted in the president maintaining high approval ratings. Even though a personal investigation, court hearings, and later being acquitted, the Lewinsky scandal seemed to barely leave a mark on Bill Clinton’s reputation as president.

In a follow-up video segment, Clinton sat in front of a camera and confessed to America about the truth of his affair. In this address, Clinton employed minimization, mortification and the comic frame to tell the truth to his audience in a way that did not lose their support. Minimization is a strategy of minimizing the seriousness of the bad deed, and mortification is an apology for the bad deed. He made the situation seem less of an urgent matter (minimization) by stating that he’s had to answer questions that “no American citizen would never want to answer” (Clinton, 1998). This statement humanizes him, making the issue seem smaller and less serious. He takes responsibility (mortification) when he states: “Still, I must take responsibility for all my actions both public and private” (Clinton). Clinton then admits that his language may have misled the American people into thinking other than the truth, and he apologizes for it.

Clinton states that the issue should not have gotten so much coverage, as it had distracted the public from more important matters — in this way he employs the comic frame. “It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives, and get on with our national life…our country has been distracted by this matter for too long.” (Clinton, 1998). This remark critiques the American public for getting distracted by these less serious matters. Clinton remarks: “Return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise to the next American century” (Clinton). This is a clear call to action.

President Clinton’s employment of minimization, mortification and the comic frame was effective because he left office high approval ratings. Even during the Lewinsky scandal, he maintained high approval ratings, a majority in polls tell that he was still suitable for the position and should not be impeached.

Clinton’s grasp of rhetoric strategy and skill in delivery aided him in communicating his messages to his diverse audience and was able to use these skills to maintain public approval even through a personal and political scandal. It can be noted that the most often uses images and narrative to communicate with his audience. He mixes both his images and narratives with common American values and hopeful language. In this way, he is able to articulate a real vision and evoke an emotional response.

Clinton is a powerful and influential rhetor who still today exercises these skills. Clinton demonstrates the influence of precise diction, timely and calculated responses, hopeful and inclusive language in a president’s rhetoric.

Coaching young, first-time, minority candidates running for office. (he/they)

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