In contemporary American politics, metaphors serve as media frames and rhetorical resources from which candidates can draw as they shape a public persona. In this essay, I examine the way in which First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton encompassed both traditional and radical versions of the Madonna persona following the defeat of healthcare reform, arguing that it enabled her to promote her own political agenda, respond to the Clinton sex scandals, and position herself as a credible candidate for the U.S. Senate.
On February 6, 2000, when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her candidacy for the United States Senate (and dropped the two most cumbersome of her three names), the "Hillary" of the New York Senate race looked markedly different from the "Mrs. Clinton" of the 1992 presidential campaign or the "Rodham Clinton" of the health-care reform campaign. The sinking of health-care reform appeared to drown the woman at its helm, and Rodham Clinton was publicly chastised for being pushy, meddlesome and for "telling Congress what to do." (1) The First Lady's reputation for "taking over" earned her the moniker "bitch"--uttered bluntly by the mother of House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a nationally televised interview with Connie Chung. (2) Elsewhere, I have argued that "bitch" was not just a harmless epithet hurled at the First Lady, nor was it a fleeting, sensational news story. Instead, "bitch" functioned as a rhetorical frame through which the public came to view Rodham Clinton. (3) When Rodham Clinton violated expectations as First Lady, she incurred a Burkean sense of "guilt." William Benoit explains that Burke "uses the term `guilt' to represent an undesirable state of affairs, an unpleasant feeling, which occurs when expectations concerning behavior are violated." There are a number of possible rhetorical responses to guilt, but Benoit suggests that a response is necessary, since "maintaining a favorable impression is an important goal in interaction." (4) Strategic response to guilt is particularly important for political figures since, as Mary E. Stuckey and Frederick J. Antczak note, politicians strive for identification with voters in order to "establish the dominance of their interpretation of the political world." Stuckey and Antczak's study points to the potential for metaphor to be used tactically in political discourse by placing candidates into a specific perspective. The authors state, "As perspective, metaphor functions to see one character in terms of another." (5)
Although Stuckey and Antczak focus on the ways in which metaphors within candidates' own discourse allow them to bolster themselves and cast their opponents in an unfavorable light, their insights point to a slightly different use of metaphor in political discourse. For Rodham Clinton, the explicit metaphors used in her speeches helped to shape her political identity, but perhaps more important was the implicit metaphorical subtext of the 1992 campaign and subsequent health-care reform campaign that labeled the First Lady a "bitch." Once that image began to resonate with the public and the news media, Rodham Clinton had to respond. The thesis of this essay is that Rodham Clinton tapped another archetype of female identity, "Madonna," in order to generate a rhetorical response to the decimation of her image in 1994. Rodham Clinton first enacted a traditionally feminine version of Madonna as she revamped her public image. In both domestic and international rhetoric, however, the First Lady employed oxymoron as a rhetorical strategy to make her Madonna persona complex and heterogeneous, and to blur the lines between femininity and feminism. This new political identity enabled Rodham Clinton to promote her own political agenda, respond to the Clinton sex scandals, and position herself as a credible candidate for the U.S. Senate.
This study is a case example of Benoit's theory of image restoration, assessing Hillary Rodham Clinton's public rhetoric from 1995 to 1999, when Rodham Clinton employed strategies such as bolstering, mortification, and denial. (6) What this study adds to Benoit's perspective, however, is the role that metaphor and oxymoron can play in image restoration. Rodham Clinton's explicit attempts to elicit a positive affective response from her audience (bolstering) likely would have failed were it not for the implicit ways that her Madonna persona bolstered her image. Similarly, the oxymoronic nature of her Madonna image allowed Rodham Clinton to engage in mortification (admitting responsibility for guilt) at certain times, and denial at others. For Rodham Clinton, "Madonna" became a well from which she could draw rhetorical resources. The Madonna metaphor is rich, in part, because of its long history in U.S. culture.
Madonna in the American Imagination
The appeal of the Madonna image lies in its elasticity as a metaphor. Madonna originated in the Biblical story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and is woven into American myth and culture. John Gatta's study of the Madonna theme in American literature highlights varying manifestations of the Madonna trope, from the paradigmatic mother seen in the work of Harriett Beecher Stowe to the early-twentieth-century Madonna exemplified in Harold Frederic's writings where Madonna was associated with a mystique of covert sexuality. Henry Adams's work rounded out the Madonna persona by giving it both a morally redemptive capacity reminiscent of the nineteenth-century cult of true womanhood, as well as a sexual dimension; Adams describes the Madonna as a "self-subsistent monarch who owns and rules the place.... She reigns in defiance of patriarchal authority, whether exercised on a divine or ecclesiastical plane." (7)
Of course, any discussion of "Madonna" in American culture could not stop at the literary version. Much more familiar to contemporary audiences is the pop icon, the material girl lauded for individuality and image savvy but vilified for cagey consumerism. What the pop star brings to the metaphor is heterogeneity--the ability to embody the "both/and." Critics examining pop icon Madonna have produced diverse, sometimes contradictory, readings of her public persona. Some view her as a sign of heterogeneity, encompassing oppositional discourses in a way that is liberatory for women. Postmodern feminists contend that through parodic performance Madonna begins to deconstruct the notion of gender. Others critique what they see as an excessive emphasis on wealth and pleasure in Madonna's discourse, claiming that the commodification of her image blunts any liberatory potential that it might otherwise have. (8) E. Diedre Pribram explains that "feminists' ambivalence toward Madonna derives from arguments of whether she works to destroy stereotypes or only confirms traditional roles and representations of women. These contentions are fueled by the difficulties surrounding the Madonna persona, the difficulties of fixing her as one set of meanings or another." (9) Such critique has been leveled similarly at Rodham Clinton, with some feminists arguing that her turn toward femininity in 1995 was a betrayal of her liberal feminist sensibilities and others applauding her for resisting familiar stereotypes and easy categorizations. In fact, in 1996 a political cartoon explicitly conflated the public personae of Madonna and Rodham Clinton, portraying the First Lady as Evita, a figure then being depicted in film by Madonna:
The Madonna metaphor historically has encompassed a variety of female identities, from sexless saint to empowered mother to heterogeneous individual. As such, it can be employed for conservative, liberal, and radical political ends. Because Madonna represents this continuum of female identities, it has proven especially useful for Rodham Clinton during her political career, offering a variety of female personae upon which the First Lady could draw as she developed rhetorical responses to the constraints and concerns of public life. Initially, Rodham Clinton seemed to be stifled by the hyper-feminized dimensions of the ancient archetype. As she rounded out her image on the international stage, however, the First Lady began to develop a robust political identity that tapped into the heterogeneity and diversity of the Madonna trope.
Image Restoration through Bolstering and Mortification: Mother Superior
Benoit's typology of image restoration offers five rhetorical responses to guilt: denial, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification (admitting responsibility and asking forgiveness). (10) Rodham Clinton's image problems are different than some in that her "guilt" was not a result of a direct wrongdoing (e.g. Edward Kennedy at Chappaquiddick) (11) or a rhetorical misstep (e.g. Dan Quayle's criticism of Murphy Brown). (12) Certainly, there was a cloud of suspicion hanging around the First Lady (Whitewater and travelgate), (13) and she was no stranger to speech gaffes ("cookies and tea"). (14) The "guilt" she incurred in 1992-94, however, was an outgrowth of her choice to test the boundaries of the role of First Lady and violate conventions of femininity. (15) Thus her image restoration strategy had to be cognizant of the sexism that triggered her "guilt." A successful response would both calm the fears of those who wanted a more traditional First Lady, and deconstruct the sexist logic that triggered criticism initially. That is why both metaphor and oxymoron--tools suited to the task of critique, deconstruction, and …