Bill Clinton in Rhetorical Crisis:
The Six Stages of Scandal and
Craig Allen Smith
This chapter examines the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal as an instance of rhetorical crisis. The paradox of the twentieth-century rhetorical presidency is that presidents relying on public persuasion provide their adversaries with rhetorical traps. Presidents find themselves in “rhetorical crisis” when their preferred means of persuasion become problematic in one or more of the following ways: (1) when the extension of their old rhetoric creates a problem, (2) when exposed conduct contradicts their continuing rhetoric, (3) when familiar and reliable audiences are no longer in position to modify positively the rhetorical exigence, (4) when the rhetoric that once worked is no longer appropriate to the new task or audience, or (5) when resolution of the rhetorical exigence requires rhetorical choices that create new rhetorical crises (Smith & Smith, 1994). Studies of the Watergate and Iran-Contra defenses (Smith & Smith, 1994) suggest that presidents’ rhetorical crises play out in multiple arenas simultaneously: The press and citizens decide public approval, the House and Senate decide matters of impeachment, and the courts decide matters of law.
The five problems associated with rhetorical crisis can perhaps best be conceived of as symptoms. A president need not exhibit all five symptoms to be in crisis, but the number and severity of the symptoms taken together should tell us something about the treatment needed and about the prognosis for survival. Rhetorical crises often present presidents with rhetorical dilemmas. Should one continue the rhetoric that worked in the past but