Framing through Temporal Metaphor: The "Bridges" of Bob Dole and Bill Clinton in Their 1996 Acceptance Addresses
Benoit, William L., Communication Studies
This essay argues that Bill Clinton's 1996 Acceptance Address enacted rhetorical framing through skillful use of metaphor. Dole's Acceptance Address contained an off-handed suggestion that he would be a bridge to an earlier time of tranquility; essentially, a bridge to the past. Two weeks later Clinton insistently proposed that he would help build a "bridge to the future," rejecting what he represented as Dole's "bridge to the past." Clinton's metaphors effectively functioned as frames for favorably interpreting himself and his agenda-as well as for unfavorably interpreting Dole and his agenda. A new form of framing transformation ("metaphoric") is identified and suggestions for effective use of metaphors are derived from the evaluation of Clinton's discourse. This case study illustrates how rhetorical critics can support claims of effects from rhetorical discourses.
The nominee's Acceptance Address is the climax of a political nominating convention (Benoit, Wells, Pier, & Blaney, 1999; Smith & Nimmo, 1991). This speech fulfills multiple purposes (unifying the party, rallying the troops, setting the issue agenda for the general campaign) with immediate partisan and larger televised audiences (Trent & Friedenberg, 1995). It is also the highpoint of a very important component of the campaign process, for approximately 25% of the electorate decides how to vote during the party nominating conventions (Holbrook, 1996). While other discourses occur at these quadrennial gatherings (like Keynote Speeches [Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 2000], or speeches by candidates' spouses [Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998]), there can be no doubt that conventions are designed so that the nominees' speeches are the highlight of these celebrations. This essay analyzes the two 1996 Acceptance Addresses, arguing that Bill Clinton skillfully employed his discourse to shape perceptions not only of himself but of his opponent, Bob Dole, as well. Clinton cunningly deployed a temporal metaphor to frame not only himself, his discourse, and his agenda, but also Dole, his rhetoric, and his agenda.
Metaphors help us understand and interpret the world and the events, ideas, and people in it. Metaphors describe one thing in terms of another (Communism is a cancer; Richard is a lion). Richards (1936) declared that metaphors have two parts, tenor (communism, Richard) and vehicle (cancer, lion). Metaphors, of course, are far more than simple ornaments: They can influence audience perceptions or interpretations of the world. The world view constituted by a metaphor functions as a terministic screen (Burke, 1965, 1966) which in this case helped voters interpret the candidates, their utterances, and their policies. Schon (1979) explained that metaphors can frame problems and "set the directions of problem solving" (p. 255). Thus, metaphors can offer an interpretative framework that influences social policy. I argue that Clinton's metaphors shaped perceptions of the presidential candidates and their agendas.
To develop this argument, I begin with a brief review of the literature on metaphor and framing. Then I briefly consider the genre in which these metaphors emerged, Acceptance Addresses. This discussion will be followed by analysis of the metaphors in Dole's and (especially) Clinton's discourses. Next, I will evaluate both the effectiveness and the effects of these metaphors and, finally, discuss the implications of this analysis. This essay will function as a contribution to on-going dialogue about how rhetorical critics can make claims about the effects of the discourses they study (cf. Edwards, 1996; Stromer-Galley & Schiappa, 1998).
Aristotle explained in the Poetics that "Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else" (1457b7-9). Metaphor was originally understood primarily as embellishment. Cicero, for instance, declared that metaphor was a "stylistic ornament" (1942, 3. …