The Strategic Potential of Sequencing Apologia Stases: President Clinton's Self-Defense in the Monica Lewinsky Scandal

Article excerpt

During 1998 and 1999, President Bill Clinton faced a series of "kategoria," or accusations, regarding his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Led by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, the Congress, the media, and the public all played multiple roles during this unfolding drama, each acting either by turn or sometimes simultaneously as accuser, witness, judge. The tenor of accusations changed repeatedly as new evidence against Clinton gradually emerged; each fresh revelation not only complicated the President's task of offering an adequate self-defense, or "apologia," but also called into question his previous attempts. In spite of its etymological kinship with the word "apology," "apologia" refers to any defense of oneself or one's actions. The rhetorical tradition identifies four possible "stases" or choices of pivotal places from which an apologist might take a stand against accusers: issues of fact, definition, jurisdiction, and quality. Because the stases' defense strategies are largely incompatible with each other, a credible apologist usually selects among them based on the nature of the accusation faced (see Ryan, 1982, 1984) and the specific audience responsible for deciding that kategoria-apologia contest.

This essay contends that Clinton survived the Lewinsky scandal because he employed a graduated apologia strategy that progressed through the stases. The kategoria and the nature of the evidence against him changed constantly. As it was made public, each wave of new evidence refocused the nature of the charges against Clinton and revised or enlarged the pool of recognized judges and range of potential consequences. Further, as a national figure in a media age, there was pressure for Clinton to respond immediately to each development, without knowing if or when the charges against him would change again. Clinton made more than 20 public statements during the Lewinsky scandal's 1998-1999 duration, statements that ranged from denials to admissions, from assurances of cooperation to questions about the process's legitimacy, and from calls for national unity to politically divisive counter-attacks. As he dealt with new developments, Clinton also needed to avoid any further disclosures that might help his accusers. Viewed as a contiguous set rather than as discrete apologia, his twenty-plus statements formed a graduated series of stasis-centered responses in which each defense included the minimal amount of detail possible, exercised ambiguity to preserve future access to the stases not featured prominently in that statement, and over time moved from an emphasis on denial to an emphasis on jurisdiction and definition then finally to an emphasis on quality. The scandal's highest stakes were criminal and civil penalties and the Clinton presidency itself. Ultimately, although with his credibility in tatters, the President salvaged both his office and avoided post-presidency prosecution.

Beyond better appreciating this particular case, understanding Clinton's progressive apologia is important for at least two reasons. First, it emphasizes the importance of studying apologia that takes more complex forms than the established single pivotal speech (e.g., Nixon's 1952 "Checkers" speech; Edward Kennedy's 1969 "Chappaquiddick" address). Viewed as discrete apologia, most of Clinton's many statements were judged inadequate, as further evidenced by the rhetor's felt need to continue issuing and varying his self-defenses. The Clinton case offers a well-documented instance in which the kategoria continually evolved and called forth multiple responses and in which the influence of the serial apologia as a whole differed from its discrete parts. A few apologia studies (Henry, 1988; Heisey, 1988) have suggested the utility of studying the evolution of rhetorical accusations and multiple self-defense speech sets. With some notable exceptions, largely centered on corporations' image restoration campaigns (Benoit, 1995; Benoit & Brinson, 1994; Huxman & Bruce, 1995; Hearit, 1995) or an apologist's struggle toward symbolic perfection in response to "hierarchical psychosis" rather than strategic need (Moore, 1997), apologia studies tend to focus on single apologists responding in a single public statement to a well-defined kategoria. …