Argument Efficacy: Evaluating the Public Argument of President Bill Clinton's Impeachment Crisis

Article excerpt

For only the second time in the history of the United States' presidency, a sitting president was impeached by the House of Representatives and stood trial in the Senate. Charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, Clinton's 37-day trial culminated in a 55-45 rejection of perjury charges and a 50-50 rejection of obstruction charges (a 2/3 majority or 67 votes is required to remove a president from office). Immediately after the vote, Clinton again professed his repentance and contended that the nation must move beyond the ordeal. Not only did the "Teflon President" survive a political tempest practically unscathed, he baffled his opponents when his approval ratings actually increased to an amazing 73% (The Clinton Presidency).

This media-portrayed "Presidential Days of Our Lives" tantalized, repulsed, and bewildered the public. Like any good soap opera, there was a villain, hero, temptress, antagonist, a predictable "shocking" twist, and an anticipated conclusion. Unlike a television soap opera, however, the designation of villain, hero, temptress, and antagonist depended on the storyteller and competing storytellers offered opposing interpretations.

According to Bennett (1975), understanding politics requires understanding the processes of political definition. He argues, "We do not respond to events politically of analytically, we respond to their meanings. An event may 'happen', but its meaning is constructed" (23). Likewise, Page and Shapiro (1992) maintain that "events seldom speak for themselves" and that the rhetoric of competing advocates imposes contrasting interpretations to influence public opinion (340). Hahn (1998) goes so far as to claim that most major political questions are actually definitional arguments.

The definition of happenings, or the assignment of meaning, in Clinton's impeachment crisis ultimately impacted its outcome. Clinton's opponents described the happenings as evidence of Clinton's immorality and used such descriptors as "deceit," "sexual scandal," and "obstruction of justice" (Labaton, 1-22-98 & Bronner, 1-23-98). They attempted to define the happenings as gross presidential immorality, which necessitated his removal. Conversely, Clinton supporters defined the situation as a destructive, partisan witch-hunt. Hillary Clinton portrayed it as a "concerted effort to undermine his (Clinton's) legitimacy as president ... when he could not be defeated politically" (quoted in Bennet, 1-22-98, 2).

Despite this significance, few investigations have focused on the actual process of meaning development in public disputes. The question remains, how should public definitional arguments be evaluated? This study develops a new perspective of argument criticism, argument efficacy. Developed through an analysis of The New York Times' coverage of President William J. Clinton's impeachment crisis, argument efficacy explains Clinton's surprising success and his opponents' shocking defeat. Further, the analysis reveals that argument efficacy joins normative argument constructs with critical practices.

WEAKNESSES OF CURRENT ARGUMENT PERSPECTIVES

As argument critics have moved away from traditional notions of formalism, of applied logic, the necessity of identifying new evaluative standards have likewise developed. When answering the question, "when is an argument worthy of acceptance?" current evaluative standards tend to focus much more on the utilization of social knowledge. With argument form (traditional logic) no longer the basis of evaluation, the critics have turned to evaluative criteria based on socially established relationships of knowledge. According to Wenzel (1992), the primary focus of the rhetorical perspectives is the identification of an argument's persuasive means. Wenzel contends, "Arguments are construed as one mode of symbolic representation that has certain unique potentials for influencing people" (127). Since the focus of rhetorical perspectives stem from the audience, evaluative standards are related and relative to specific audiences. …