Hillary Clinton: Managing the Rhetorical Double-Bind

This is a guest post by Dr Mark Bannister, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Canterbury Christ Church University

Hillary Clinton is in a unique position, having occupied four of the most important and symbolic public offices in American politics. This is not the end of course as she may yet hold a fifth role, that of President. As she enters the campaign ‘home straight’ analyses of her readiness for the highest office are plentiful. A critical skill for any political leader is the ability to communicate to a variety of audiences. Rhetoric and oratory represent the means by which a politician can persuade, navigate and often manipulate the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. In a new book on Democratic Orators from JFK to Barack Obama Aristotelian modes of ethos (appeal based on character), pathos (emotion) and logos (logic) are used to examine the rhetoric of Democratic Party politics since the 1960s. My contribution to the volume evaluates the oratory of Hillary Clinton, drawing on her prolific public speeches in her political career up to the launch of her second presidential bid.

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Women and oratory

Women have not figured strongly in the history of political oratory. Men were not only the ones in Western society  most likely to be in the jobs that gave  occasion for  speeches; they were, with very rare exceptions, also the ones educated to give them, and the ones whose speeches were most likely to be written down. Not only constrained by educational opportunities, women (as feminist scholars stress) have to contend with power structures that have historically limited women’s voices from being heard at all.

Women therefore suffer from a gendered double bind in the use of rhetoric in political speeches: talk tough – conforming to leadership norms – and risk sounding too masculine, use feminine emotion – conforming to gendered notions – and risk sounding weak. This is all part of the multiple dichotomies and contradictions associated with Hillary Clinton, within a context of difference and dominance. Women in leadership positions, or aspiring to lead, are required to conform to male expectations often magnified by the demands of wartime leadership or institutional. Hillary Clinton did seek to manage this gendered Catch 22 by initially drawing on masculine rhetoric as a ‘fighter’, whilst using indirect methods to display emotional appeal.

Hillary as public speaker

Clinton has generally not been lauded for her oratorical skill; her success in public office has not been due to any sharp and succinct rhetorical techniques. Her style, was initially prosaic and tended toward lengthy and complex responses to questions; an understandable approach given her legal training. This caused some difficulty for Clinton as journalists constantly searched for tools to misrepresent her: the 1992 “cookies and tea” comment is the most infamous example of reporters excavating a juicy sound bite from and circulating it regardless of the fact it misrepresented the statement as a whole. The extrapolation of this seemingly innocuous quote, taken out of context and used to make ‘Hillary an issue’ alerted her to potential rhetorical pitfalls based on gender.

Yet, it is perhaps due to the oratorical bind, through which we consume oratory via only a masculine paradigm, which means her oratory appears more prosaic, less effusive and uninspiring. There have been flashes in a career – ‘women’s rights are human rights’ (1995) and in her 2008 concession speech in Washington – when the confluence of the occasion and the words was most evident. Gendered analysis of her speeches has seen her occupancy of positions of power, responsibility and influence open her up to charges that equivalent male politicians would never face.

Adapting to the situation

Hillary Clinton has been a prolific public speaker in a variety of roles – from delivering the first student commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1969 to defending her actions over Benghazi in Congress in 2013. She was – and still is – a powerful orator, able to generate appeals based on logos and her connection with social issues to establish appeal based onethos. Less evident was her pathos though she deployed classic rhetorical techniques which were more evident over time to project her image and policy. Much of her rhetorical success has been based on the ability to adapt her oratory to the position she held and the situation, helped in no small measure by her close coterie of advisors. She was comfortable on the international stage pushing the universal human rights agenda as First Lady and later as State Secretary. She could engage in the combative arena of partisan party politics as a Senator and then as a genuine presidential candidate. Perhaps her greatness rhetorical success was to continually face down her critics and many detractors, usually with dignity and poise. Adopting in particular ‘conflict’ and ‘journey’ metaphors she projected her ‘authentic self’ through her rhetoric – often using proxies – bound up as she was in a constant struggle to prove others wrong and take on new challenges to ‘keep going’..

Transcending the double-bind?

Utilising rhetorical techniques to manage the ‘double bind’ proved problematic. Still bounded by a male dominated arena, Clinton has been channelled by context, environment and advisers into deploying tough, largely uncompromising language. Rather than transcending the double-bind, she has been linguistically caught up in it, not least when presenting the case for military action and over emphasising her ‘experience’ (as with the backfiring ‘3am phone call ad’). Herpathos and femininity only appeared to shine through once she was freed from playing the tough role assigned to her and expressed a more expansive and inspiring form of rhetoric in her concession speech in 2008 ’the glass ceiling now has 18million cracks in it’. Up to then she had eschewed such fripperies keen to stress experience (ethos) over vision (pathos). Depending on the outcome of the current presidential campaign, we will see if her rhetoric can make the transition into the highest leadership role, breaking new ground again.

Democratic Orators from JFK to Barack Obama (2016) edited by Crines, A.S., Moon, D.S., Lehrman, R., Thody, P. is published by Palgrave

This post was originally published in Presidential Power.

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