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Hillary Clinton Applies Rhetorical Skills Honed While First Lady In New York Senate Race

October 26, 2000

Erie, Pa. -- Hillary Rodham Clinton is applying similar rhetorical strategies in her bid for the U.S. Senate seat in New York that she used in successfully managing the media during her husband's scandal-plagued presidency, a Penn State communications expert says.

"As First Lady, Mrs. Clinton's chief rhetorical maneuver was to co-opt the power of the media, especially television, in creating positive stories about herself as loyal wife, devoted mother, intelligent woman and private person. These proved to be more interesting to the press, and therefore, the public, than ongoing reports about her husband's misbehavior," says Dr. Colleen E. Kelley, assistant professor of speech communication at Penn State Erie, author of the forthcoming book, "The Rhetoric of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Study in Crisis Management Discourse" (Praeger).

"In the current race against Rick Lazio, she has converted attacks on her character and record as First Lady into positives rather than negatives," Kelley says. "For instance, when assailed about her failed health plan during Bill Clinton's first administration, she framed the failed plan as a `learning experience' that taught her the need `to take step-by-step progress toward the ultimate goal of providing quality affordable health insurance for every American.' "

When asked by a TV moderator why she has chosen to remain with Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton replied that she has worked her "entire life" to ensure that women have the right to make choices that are best for them and that is what she has done in her own life. She did not pass judgment on the domestic choices others have made, subtly implying that she is entitled to the same courtesy.

"A further result of this tactic is that anyone who still pursues the question of Mrs. Clinton's marriage may end up the victim of a rhetorical backlash, cast as a violator not only of her privacy, but that of the right to privacy in general," Kelley notes.

"Images framed by the media -- rather than direct experience -- constitute the public's knowledge of politics and political actors," says Kelley. "Therefore, many Americans, especially women, were willing to accept Hillary Clinton's rhetorical packaging of herself as the president's wife. And because the picture she projected made them feel `warm and fuzzy' about the First Lady, who was `standing by her man' despite the `facts,' they also stood by their president, scandals or not.

"As her husband's chief surrogate, Hillary Clinton did much to change his public persona from that of philanderer and liar into that of beleaguered, all-too-human president and family man who resorted to lying as a desperate attempt to fend off a vicious, scandal-hungry and invasive press," Kelley says. "Who better to defend a husband against allegations of infidelity than the alleged `victim' -- his spouse?"

As a result, even revelations of Clinton's dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky failed to bring him down, according to Kelley.

Through it all, Hillary Clinton maintained her own innocence of any wrongdoing, despite accusations arising from the Clintons' real estate speculations while still in Arkansas (i.e Whitewater) and the 1993 firing of seven long-term employees of the White House travel office (i.e. Travelgate).

"If Bill Clinton's impeachment acquittal is an unprecedented accomplishment for a 20th century American president, then the role Hillary Clinton played in that acquittal -- as well as in rhetorically managing other crises in her husband's administrations -- is without precedent for an American First Lady," Kelley adds.


Paul Blaum (814) 865-9481 (o)
Vicki Fong (814) 865-9481 (o)/ (814) 238-1221 (h)
EDITOR: Dr. Kelley is at (814) 898-6392 or by e-mail.