Clinton’s Rhetoric of Contrition
Ronald Lee and Matthew H. Barton
On the evening of August 17, 1998, President Clinton, speaking from the historic White House Map Room, delivered one of the shortest, yet among the most memorable, addresses of his career. Before a national television audience, after months of silence, the president offered an explanation of his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and an account of the deceptions he had employed to cover-up the affair.
In the days that followed, the press framed this speech as a failure. This response prompted Clinton to deliver two additional speeches—the first on August 28 and the second on September 11. A progressive inventional pattern distinguishes this trilogy of presidential messages. Each successive speech embraced more fully the generic demands of religious confession. The president moved from characterizing his transgressions as mistakes to calling them sins; he moved from angrily blaming others for his troubles to asking forgiveness for his pride; and he moved from the liberal language of rights to the moral language of virtue.1
Although this rhetorical pattern may reflect Clinton’s own spiritual journey, it also mirrored the reaction of the press. The secular media interpreted the August 17 address as a failed confession. Reporters, columnists, and editorialists consistently employed theological concepts in explaining Clinton’s inadequate effort. When Clinton spoke on August 28 and then again on September 11, the press framed his rhetorical efforts as increasingly acceptable. In fact, the National Prayer Breakfast address on September 11 was widely hailed as a sincere and moving speech.