Vibrant Voices of Public Address–Volume 1, No. 3

March 2012

A Conversation with Kathryn M. Olson

In this issue, Public Address Division member Kathryn M. Olson discusses her study of two presidential press conferences: Democrat Bill Clinton’s 9 November 1994 response to midterm elections that gave Republicans both houses of Congress and Republican George W. Bush’s 4 December 2007 response to a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) challenging his theory that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. The texts are available in William J. Clinton, “The President’s News Conference, November 9, 1994,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Administration of William J. Clinton, 1994, Book 2 (Washington, DC: GPO, n.d.), 2045–52; and at George W. Bush, “Press Conference by the President,” 4 December 2007,

What do you find especially compelling about these artifacts?

These two news conferences both stunned me when they initially occurred. The sheer number and range of tortured interpretations and questionable argumentative moves emanating from the White House briefing room in these single appearances seemed remarkable. These were moves that a decent student taking a basic argumentation class should be able to recognize and refute easily. Further, the brazenness of a leader who was not only denying any problem with his position—in the face of such substantial public displays of constituent disapproval or solid counterevidence—but also insisting that the only choice was between his policy and disaster seemed absurd on its face.

The fact that today similar intransigence and self-justification seem almost the default at all levels of government encouraged me to take a fresh look at these texts. Together they provide a compendium of recurring argument patterns that make constructive criticism and democratic deliberation very difficult. They thus indicate and contribute to a rhetorical climate that undercuts the main strength of democracy, as David Zarefsky noted in 2008: its compatibility with human fallibility and the possibility of deliberative correction.

What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of these artifacts?

Understanding these press conferences’ immediate contexts is indispensable, but their significance for my purposes is how they cultivate, model, and index the development of a rhetorical climate in which a democracy’s leaders respond to criticism even from friendly quarters (e.g., constituents or support agencies) with intransigence and self-justification.

For the first two years of his presidency, Clinton had the advantage of both a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate. Yet Clinton’s major policy initiatives, most notably universal health care and welfare reform, foundered in deal-making or proved unpopular. The 1994 midterms gave the Republicans an overwhelming victory that most observers saw more as a repudiation of the Democrats than as an endorsement of the Republicans. When Clinton approached the podium for his press conference the day after the election, he had some accounting to do to his constituents on whether he had received their rebuke and how he planned to rechart his course. Instead, Clinton insisted that the election results meant that voters wanted more of his agenda enacted faster, and he held the new Republican Congress responsible to cooperate with him in realizing that goal.

Prior to the 2007 NIE, Bush had insisted that Iran was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and he used that claim as the basis to argue that military action against that nation might soon be warranted. In 2002 Bush and his administration had led the United States to war against Iraq with similar arguments based largely on a putatively “slam-dunk” case that Iraq secretly harbored WMDs. Gradually, indisputable evidence emerged that Iraq neither had nor was developing such weapons. But it was too late. The United States was already mired in the unpopular Iraq War. The 2007 NIE, which exonerated Iraq’s neighbor Iran of similar WMD charges, seemed especially compelling because it was the product of an overhauled preparation process. Relieved Americans attended to Bush’s 4 December press conference hoping for an enthusiastic embrace of this factual correction and some expression of the President’s resolve to avoid unnecessary wars. Yet Bush’s press conference took a different, and astonishing, tack. In spite of Bush’s acknowledgment that the NIE was credible and without mounting any new justifications, Bush stood firm on his position that Iran posed such a nuclear danger that military action was not out of the question. He interpreted the NIE findings as actually supporting continuation, without modification, of his harsh policy toward Iran.

In a forthcoming essay, I consider the transcripts of these two press conferences in the broader context of contemporary democratic discourse. Certainly, there has never been a “Golden Age” in which American politicians graciously and humbly accepted correction and unfavorable feedback, reflected on their mistakes, and gratefully learned from the experience. However, intransigence and persistent self-justification—regardless of important new facts to the contrary or unequivocal negative feedback from one’s constituents, not just one’s political adversaries—seem to have become a way of life at all points on the political spectrum. (In his 2011 Alta Argumentation Conference keynote, Thomas Hollihan traces this new level of “scorched earth” politics to Reagan’s presidency.)

The public stands to pay the price for this mode of politics. For instance, the contemporary political discourse that coincided with my writing of the essay in 2011 included two political dramas, heavy with self-justification and intransigence: the turmoil in my home state of Wisconsin over Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill, which, among other controversial provisions, stripped public unions of most bargaining rights, and a federal standoff over raising the nation’s debt ceiling. The latter case of political intransigence contributed directly to Standard and Poor’s downgrading the nation’s credit rating in the fall of 2011. Now, in March 2012, the full public costs and consequences of the ongoing battle in Wisconsin remain unsettled.

Revisiting the Clinton and Bush press conferences offered the chance to intercept and analyze the growth of public intransigence and uncompromising self-justification as habits of argument (rather than occasional occurrences) where it is perhaps easiest to recognize them: in the rhetoric of the one official elected by all the people. When a President’s public rhetoric exemplifies unreflective intransigence and assertions of certainty regardless of the quality and clarity of challenges from friendly quarters, the tone is set for other, less highly placed public figures to react to criticism or correction similarly and for all to lash out even more defensively when confronted by political opponents.

How would you characterize your critical approach to these artifacts? Why have you chosen this approach?

My perspective focuses on rhetorical leadership. I draw on both argumentation and rhetorical criticism in an attempt to empower rhetorically capable and critical citizen leaders and to analyze and critique exemplary and questionable leadership practices. I choose this approach because it actively, not just reflectively, engages stakes that matter every day to real people, particularly my students. Given that my best chance at influence is through teaching my students how to recognize and analyze the various rhetorical moves that they encounter and how to develop and evaluate proactive options in light of what they perceive, my focus on rhetorical leadership has a strong pedagogical flavor.

How would you incorporate these artifacts into a class?

For a basic argumentation class, these companion press conferences are a great place for students to practice locating and evaluating the use, in actual discourse, of many key argumentation concepts: shifting the burden of proof, straw person arguments, post hoc ergo propter hoc, false dichotomy, conditional or hypothetical arguments, false dilemma, confusing necessary and sufficient conditions, substituting the part for the whole, and cross-examination strategies. After students have read about these concepts and the instructor has taught them in class, students could search for and explain as many examples from the news conferences as possible, either as homework or in small groups or, best of all, first as homework and then in small groups with a final full-class debriefing discussion. The instructor could even give students the concepts and have them compete to be the first to find and explain each one and/or to find the most examples.

This pair of press conferences also could support a more advanced pedagogical discussion of Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s concept of dissociation. The press conferences are replete with instances of dissociating various unitary concepts into parts and then claiming the part with positive associations for one’s own position. The texts are particularly helpful because they repeatedly illustrate what Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca argue is the “prototype of all conceptual dissociation”: the “appearance-reality” pair. For instance, Clinton dissociates what the voters “really” mean from what they “appear” to mean; he takes the election results as proof that the voters endorse his agenda and just want it fulfilled more completely and quickly. He also insists that there has been “real” progress in securing Americans’ futures but that voters may not have “felt” or “believed” that yet. That is, he contrasts the “appearance” of ineffectiveness based on misperceptions against the quiet “reality” of effectiveness. For his part, Bush dissociates Iran’s “real” threatening nature from the “apparently” peaceful and compliant picture of it painted in the NIE and concludes that the report thus functions as proof that his militaristic policy is working and should be extended. He also argues that possessing the knowledge to enrich uranium constitutes a “real” nuclear threat that might justify preemptive military action, even though the “appearance” is that Iran is not using that knowledge and does not have the several other parts of the sequence that would make it a credible nuclear threat.

Where can interested readers find additional information?

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. “Justifying the War in Iraq: What the Bush Administration’s Uses of Evidence Reveal.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 10 (2007): 249–74.

Olson, Kathryn M. “Intransigence and Self-Justification as a Political Way of Life.” In Venomous Speech and Other Problems in American Political Discourse [working title], 2 vols., ed. J. Clarke Rountree. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, forthcoming.

Zarefsky, David. “Two Faces of Democracy.” In Rhetoric and Democracy: Pedagogical and Political Practices, ed. Todd F. McDorman and David M. Timmerman, 115–37. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2008.

Contributor: Kathryn M. Olson is Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and Director of its Rhetorical Leadership Graduate Concentration/Certificate Program. Her research interests include rhetorical criticism and theory, argumentation, and contemporary public address. Her scholarship appears in journals including Argumentation and Advocacy, the Journal of Applied Communication Research, Philosophy and Rhetoric, Presidential Studies Quarterly, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, and Rhetoric and Public Affairs. She has won numerous awards for research and for teaching and mentoring, including two NCA Golden Anniversary Monograph Awards and NCA’s Women’s Caucus Francine Merritt Award.

Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.

Vibrant Voices, Vol. 1, No. 3