ATHENS, Ga. -- President Bill Clinton may be facing the possibility of impeachment over the issue of Monica Lewinsky, but his mastery of public speech could be his ticket to staying in office, according to a University of Georgia professor of speech communication who is a scholar of presidential and political rhetoric.
Clinton's expertise at public speaking, in fact, may be likened to that of someone with a great ear for music -- someone who can hear a song once and then play it perfectly on a piano, according to Dr. John Murphy.
"Rhetorical style is quite important to a presidency, and Clinton is a master at it, and is, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, the most effective public speaker as president since Franklin Roosevelt," said Murphy, an associate professor.
Murphy spoke about Clinton's speech style on Sept. 26 at the biannual Public Address Conference, which was held on the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
In order to assess Clinton's rhetorical abilities, Murphy read and studied dozens of Clinton's speeches over the course of his presidency, examining such areas as linguistic style, metaphorical use, literary effect and argumentative structure. While recognizing that many, if not most, of Clinton's speeches have been prepared by speech writers, Murphy said that Clinton's frequent changes and his delivery style indeed make the messages his own -- something true for all presidents.
Murphy said that Clinton has a striking ability virtually to become part of any audience he is addressing, so that his message is enormously effective. This ability to shift into a different persona for differing audiences was striking in the President's videotaped Grand Jury testimony, when he was in what Murphy called "full-blown lawyer mode," in stark contrast to Clinton's impassioned speeches before other audiences.
"Clinton's rhetorical success is a melding of all kinds of discourse, especially when he is cutting the ground from under opponents on such issues as crime and the budget," said Murphy. "Now he's doing what he's very good at indeed -- trying to change the conversation from issues of impeachment to the problems of the American people."
Indeed, Clinton's ability to artfully craft a message that speaks to many different constituencies may be one reason his poll number remain high despite the Lewinsky matter, Murphy said. He contrasted Clinton's approach with President Reagan's very successful rhetorical style by saying that Reagan essentially had one effective story and stayed with it -- "America is the hero, and now we have a new sheriff in town." Murphy said that Reagan played that role "beautifully" and it helped build his role as a national political leader.
Clinton, on the other hand, has built consensus by recognizing the diversity of the country and its subcultures, Murphy argues, and using that recognition to craft messages that appeal to different people.
"In that sense, Clinton is a transitional figure," said Murphy. "Franklin Roosevelt did the same thing to some extent, but not nearly as much as Clinton."
In his presentation at the University of Iowa, Murphy reflected on two novels that encapsulate political rhetoric and its effectiveness -- All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren and Primary Colors by Joe Klein. Murphy argued that so-called "communal language" -- exemplified by a construction such as "All Americans know that . . ." -- may be used less now than at other times over the past half-century but that Clinton has continued to use it to his advantage.
"Take, for example, President Clinton's efforts, rhetorical and otherwise, regarding Bosnia," Murphy told the audience in Iowa. "Upon taking office, he found a situation growing steadily worse. After much delay, he settled on a policy, coerced the warring parties to the conference table and then went on national television to persuade the American people to send American boys to enforce the agreement." In that speech, Clinton called on the American desire to "make the world safe for democracy," a common but effective rhetorical device that spoke to the American people as a whole.
Clinton's greatest challenge in his speech-making since the end of the Cold War, Murphy asserts, is attempting to unify the country in the absence of a common enemy. And while critics have long complained that Clinton doesn't stand for anything and attaches himself chameleon-like to public polls, Murphy argues that the President's ability to identify with differing audiences may, in fact, be one of his greatest political strengths.
Of course, Clinton has suffered through notable failures to persuade, particularly in his plans for national health care, which collapsed utterly and apparently without great lament from the public. Murphy said, however, that Clinton has been more effective in articulating his vision in other areas such as the economy, the Brady Bill and the North American Trade Agreement.
Clinton's verbal ability may have initially been a liability in his dealings in the Lewinsky matter, because the President has used those skills so many times in years past to deflect problems, said Murphy and may have thought he could avoid the issue before him and the country. But the President's poll numbers rose when the Grand Jury videotape was released, indicating once again that Clinton can alter public discourse through the strength of personality and use of language.