Clinton’s Lewinsky Speech
Presidential scandal speeches should be considered a unique form of discoursed that follow a common pattern and have similar elements. All of these may not be found in every single speech but most certainly will, including Richard Nixon’s Second Watergate Speech (1973), Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra Speech (1987), and Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky Speech (1998). All the presidents used strong, direct and active voice when making these speeches, with Clinton seeming to be particularly prone to narcissism and use of the first-person singular. A standard feature of all such speeches is for the president to take responsibility for what went wrong, express regret, and then call on the country to move on so the government can return to dealing with the nation’s ‘real’ business. Both Nixon and Clinton also had a strong tendency to blame their political enemies for their predicament, and with good reason, although in Nixon’s case this paranoia and suspicion took on pathological levels. Scandal speeches always contain bombshells and shocking information, such as Clinton’s admission of having a relationship with Lewinsky, but these admissions will inevitably be placed into as favorable context as possible. As politicians who had achieved the highest office, Clinton, Nixon and Reagan all wished to avoid impeachment or resignation, which is why they carefully avoided mentioning their involvement in any possible illegal actions, although in the end Nixon did not finish his term. In all of these speeches, the presidents were also dishonest and mendacious, omitting or denying important facts, such as Reagan’s prior knowledge of the illegal funding on the Contras or Nixon’s ordering of the Watergate break in and cover-up. Finally, they almost always contain references to God, family and patriotism, usually at the end.
Analysis of Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky Speech
President Bill Clinton gave his infamous televised address admitting his affair with Monica Lewinsky on August 17, 1998. Republicans had been attacking Bill Clinton about his personal life and sexual behavior from the time of the first primaries in 1992, even before he had been nominated or elected. During his time in office, he was always under investigation by the independent counsel Ken Starr, who began by looking into his personal finances and then expanded into his extramarital affairs with Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and other women. Clinton became the second president to be impeached, although like Andrew Johnson in 1868 he was acquitted. Like all presidents caught up in scandals, he claimed at the start that he had been completely truthful with the independent counsel and the grand jury when they had questioned him about his sex life. He was correct when he asserted that these questions about his private affairs were ones that “no American citizen would ever want to answer.” No president had ever been questioned about this subject before, and certainly not under oath, although John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower had all committed adultery.
In the past, at least before Watergate, the media and public simply did not question presidents about these matters, although it had occasionally been in issue in elections for presidents like Thomas Jefferson and Grover Cleveland. Almost immediately, Clinton went on to take “complete responsibility for all my actions, both public and private,” which is what all presidents must do in these scandal speeches. Even Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan took full responsibility for Watergate and Iran-Contra, although they never revealed every detail about what had really gone on in these scandals. Bill Clinton had been equally reluctant to “volunteer information” about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but in this particularly humiliating speech he had to admit that it occurred. Then he came to the bombshell portion of the speech by admitting that he did “have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”
Once again, Clinton’s remarks in this speech were similar to those of other presidents caught up in personal or political scandals in that he denied any violations of the law, perjury or obstruction of justice. For the Republicans, the key goal was to have Clinton lie to the grand jury under oath so he could be impeached and perhaps face criminal charges. They had been pursuing him for six years in hopes of finding some type of illegality or incriminating information, but he insisted that “at no time did I ask anyone to lie, to hide or destroy evidence or to take any other unlawful action.” As usual in other such presidential addresses, he expressed his deep regret for these actions, especially because he had given a “false impression” to the public and hurt his wife and daughter, and that his primary desire had been to “protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct,” as well as his family. All along, he knew that these attacks on him by the Republicans were politically motivated, and the majority of the public agreed with him. Kenneth Starr had been pursuing him for years, in such a zealous and partisan way that he brought the office of independent counsel into disrepute. Indeed, even since Clinton’s impeachment, that office has been abolished and no new special counsel has been appointed at the federal level. No investigation had ever revealed any financial wrongdoing by Bill and Hillary Clinton, even though his political opponents had accused him of many crimes, including the murder of witnesses like Vince Foster to keep them silent.
In concluding his speech, Clinton made the standard points that other presidents like Nixon and Reagan had in their scandal speeches, especially that the time had come to move on to other issues. He stated that “this has gone on too long, cost too much and hurt too many innocent people.” All American politicians make reference to God in these types of speeches, as did Clinton when he said “this matter is between me, the two people I love most — my wife and our daughter — and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so.” He now wanted to make amends to his wife and family, and to seek their forgiveness, which was “nobody’s business but ours.” He denounced the politics of personal destruction that had been inflicted on him for six years, which he thought was in part designed to discourage candidates from running for political office in the future. Ironically, not long after his impeachment, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of Clinton’s chief persecutors, was also forced to resign in a scandal involving adultery and financial impropriety, and his successor Robert Livingston also stepped down almost immediately when he was exposed for having an extramarital affair. Both sides of the political spectrum had learned to play the personal destruction game very well as a result of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and it has continued ever since. One of its most recent victims was former Democratic presidential candidate Jonathan Edwards, exposed for having an extramarital affair and put on trial for giving money from campaign contributions to his mistress.
Bill Clinton insisted that even presidents should have the right to a private life, and that there were limits that no politician should be forced to endure. He pleaded for an end to stories about the scandal so he could return to the nation’s business, stating again that the “country has been distracted by this matter for too long, and I take my responsibility for my part in all of this.” It was time for the nation to move on to deal with “real problems” in foreign and domestic policy and put an end to “the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse, and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century.” Clinton must also have been aware that part of the reasons for the Republicans had for pursuing him so zealously was that Nixon and Reagan had also been badly damaged by independent counsel investigations, with the former finally being forced to resign in 1974. In both of these administrations, many of the president’s officials had been indicted, tried and sentenced to prison, so when the Republicans sensed an opportunity to do the same to Clinton, they pursued him without mercy.
Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra Scandal
When President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation from the White House concerning Iran-Contra on March 4th, 1987, he understood that he was caught up in a scandal that had the potential to destroy his presidency and might have led to his resignation of impeachment. In reality, he merely claimed to have been innocently unaware of what had been going on in the White House and National Security Council with Col. Oliver North, Admiral John Poindexter and Vice President George Bush, and the former two officials took all the blame on themselves and covered for the president. He was lying blatantly about all of this, especially claiming to have no memory of many of these events, such as the diversion of money to the Contras. After all, Reagan and many others had been soliciting money for them from private sources in the U.S. And all over the world, even though Congress had made it illegal. Nevertheless, Reagan truly was the Great Communicator, far more so than Nixon, and as a former actor knew how to play the part and look the part of a president and could seem ‘authentic’ in his every utterance. Nixon’s image was always one of deceit and insincerity, while Reagan was very experienced at projecting a facade of warmth, honesty and sincerity that his disgraced predecessor could never have done. In both cases, it was not simply a matter of the words they spoke, but how they appeared on television when they gave their speeches.
He opened his speech trying to set a tone of trust and sincerity, saying to his fellow Americans “your trust is what gives a president his powers of leadership and his personal strength, and it’s what I want to talk to you about this evening.” First he had to manipulate his audience and the evidence by giving them a very partial and distorted version of his dealings with Iran over the past seven years, and perhaps even before his election in 1980. At that time, fifty-three Americans were still being held hostage in Iran, and President Jimmy Carter had been humiliated by a failed rescue attempt. He was now trying to negotiate to get them freed, and it is very likely that some of Reagan’s advisors made contact with Iranian officials in order to stall and delay the release until after the election in November. In fact, the hostages landed in Washington at almost the exact hour when Regan was being sworn in 1981, and his secret contacts, negotiations and arm’s sales to Iran had been ongoing for six years after that. Naturally, he informed his TV audience of none of this, even though revelations had been appearing in the media for three months about secret arm’s deals and negotiations with the Iranian regime. He had been silent all this time and conceded that “I’ve paid a price for my silence in terms of your trust and confidence.” This was true, but then he immediately transitioned into another lie by claiming that “but I’ve had to wait, as you have, for the complete story.”
Reagan already knew far more of that story than the American public ever will, unless perhaps some of the records are ever declassified in the decades ahead. It suited his political needs to claim that his Special Counselor and Special Review Board under the leadership of the conservative Senator John Tower had been busily “pulling the truth together for me and getting to the bottom of things.” That was completely false, as later Congressional investigations demonstrated, at least in part, but this Board found him to be very truthful and eager for “the full story to be told,” which it never has been yet. Reagan than went on that he found the Board’s report “honest, convincing, and highly critical; and I accept them.” After taking “full responsibility” for his actions, he also expressed disappointment in his officials, who had dutifully taken all the blame on themselves. He claimed that all the laundered money, secret bank accounts and diverted funds were “personally distasteful,” as if he had not ordered that all of this be done.
He saved the most disturbing part of the speech for the middle, after getting all of these preliminaries out of the way. He had denied trading arms to the Iranians in order the free hostages that their allies were holding in Lebanon, which was a criminal offense under federal law. Even after that claim had been publicly proven and admitted to be false, he still said that “my heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Although he did admit part of the truth about the real policy over the past six years, why was to make high-level contacts in Iran in hopes of improving relations after the Ayatollah Khomeini was gone from the scene, he conceded that “what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and the original strategy we had in mind.” Reagan had felt a “personal concern” for the hostages, who were generally thought to be CIA agents working in Lebanon, and then covered himself again from being impeached or indicted by asserting that “I didn’t ask enough about the specifics of the total Iran plan.”
Supposedly, the Tower Board was unable to find out what happened to the money sent to the Contras, or so he claimed, but in reality Richard Secord and other used it to buy them weapons and supplies at high prices, taking large commissions in the process. Reagan now all about this but never admitted it. Once again, he lied about breaking another federal law by saying that “I didn’t know about any diversion of funds to the Contras. But as president, I cannot escape responsibility.” For these illegal and unethical activities that he had ordered, Reagan now blamed his management style, which was to set overall policies and goals and then just stand back and let his officials deal with it. In this case, however, he had indeed been very interested in finding ways to assist the Contras as much as possible, even though Congress had cut off their funding — and with good reason since they regularly tortured and murdered civilians.
Now that he had been caught in various lies and illegal actions, he had decided to turn over a new leaf and informed that NSC that he “wanted a policy that reflected the will of the Congress as well as the White House. And I told them that there’ll be no more freelancing by individuals when it comes to our national security.” His statement that no one on the NSC “kept proper records of meetings or decisions,” which was not only untrue but ludicrous, given that they had been caught shredding and destroying those records — and deliberately falsifying them. Col. North and others even admitted that they destroyed then because they did not intend to make any incriminating records available to Congress and the media. Most conveniently for Reagan, this absence of records “led to my failure to recollect whether I approved an arms shipment before or after the fact. I did approve it; I just can’t say specifically when.” No matter, though, since he assured that public that “rest assured, there’s plenty of record- keeping now going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” He replaced his Chief of Staff with Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, who had become famous during Watergate for asking “what did the president know and when did he know it?”
William Webster had replaced the deceased William Casey as head of the CIA, who had died recently without revealing any information about the Reagan administration’s covert wars. He announced a review of all covert operations, as if he was not quite aware of all of them and in fact had ordered them, and “directed that any covert activity be in support of clear policy objectives and in compliance with American values.” Reagan had Vice President Bush, a long-time CIA officer and former Director, review the policies on terrorism, which Reagan had violated completely in his secret dealings with Iran over the last six years. Even worse, Bush was actually in change of most of the covert operations on a day-to-day basis, especially those in Central America, but neither he nor Reagan ever admitted to any of this. Even when Bush was elected president in his own right in 1988, almost all of his record of involvement in CIA operations going back at least to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 was kept secret from the public, Congress and the media.
Reagan had indeed been running the CIA, NSC and other agencies involved in covert operations all over the world like the Cold War cowboy that he was. In later years, it was revealed that CIA Director William Casey had even been running armed operations inside the Soviet Union that could have led to a world war, but Reagan mentioned none of this. Instead, he promised restraint and reforms. He appointed a legal advisor “to assure a greater sensitivity to matters of the law,” which he had not cared about in the slightest for the past six years, and was “also determined to make the congressional oversight process work,” even though he had completely ignored Congress and attempted to bypass its authority at every turn. Indeed, once he was out of office, his closest advisors admitted that Ronald Reagan had nothing but contempt for Congress, but for now he promised that “proper procedures for consultation with the Congress will be followed, not only in letter but in spirit.”
Like Nixon, he concluded his speech by saying that he has made mistakes, taken his punishment and now hoped that everyone would move on. Indeed, every political leader caught in one of these major scandals will always tell his audience that the time has come to move on quickly and put the past behind them. This is as inevitable as the references to God, country and family, and to the need to “change” and “go forward.” Reagan was as every bit as mendacious and deceitful in this speech as Nixon and Clinton, but he always remained the Teflon President, and not even this scandal stuck to him. It certainly should have, but it did not, and he was not impeached. Instead, he got his wish of remaining in office to finish out his second term, where he had “a great deal that I want to accomplish with you and for you over the next two years. And the Lord willing, that’s exactly what I intend to do. Good night and God bless you.”
Richard Nixon and Watergate
Nixon’s Second Watergate Speech on August 15, 1973 was a televised address given in response to the Senate investigation of the scandal, and was probably the most dishonest and mendacious scandal speech of the three examined here. Rarely has a president lied so frequently and blatantly in public and later gotten got, but Nixon did so continually for two years. When the lies were finally revealed on the White House tapes, he realized that he would be impeached and removed for office, becoming the first U.S. president to ever lose his position in this way. Even worse, he might even have been indicted and gone to prison, losing his pension benefits in the process. This was why he made an arrangement with his new vice president Gerald Ford to resign from office in return for an unlimited pardon of a kind that had never been issued before in U.S. history. Ford pardoned Nixon not for crimes of which he had already been convicted but preventing him from being brought to justice at all. This greatly increased public cynicism and distrust of government, politicians and the political process, and in many ways the country has never recovered from it.
Characteristically, Nixon blamed the ‘liberal’ media and his political opponents for dwelling on the Watergate scandal and attempting to destroy him personally and politically, ignoring the fact that he had been doing exactly that to them. He denied that the Senate and media investigations were trying to discover the truth but only to “implicate the President personally in the illegal activities that took place.” Nixon accepted full responsibility for the events and Watergate and expressed regret for them, which follows the usual pattern in all these scandal speeches. He concealed most of the real information about what he had done and denounced the “false charges” being levied against him, all of which turned out to be true. In this speech, Nixon lied repeatedly in ways that would come back to haunt him, stating categorically that “I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in; I neither took part in nor knew about any of the subsequent cover up activities; I neither authorized nor encouraged subordinates to engage in illegal or improper campaign tactics.” All of these statements were completely false, as was his claim that “from the time when the break-in occurred, I pressed repeatedly to know the facts, and particularly whether there was any involvement of anyone in the White House.” Far from ordering a thorough investigation, he had tried to bribe the burglars to keep silent and even ordered the CIA to intervene on alleged ‘national security’ grounds to prevent the truth from ever coming out.
Nixon claimed that he had been told nothing except that only the seven burglars were involved, even though some of them like G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt were employed by the White House. Nixon’s speech was full of lies, distortions and omissions, such as telling the public that he knew nothing about Watergate and asked White House Counsel John Dean to look into the matter and give him a full report. In reality, he told Dean to cover it up and even arranged to pay the E. Howard Hunt and the other burglars a million dollars to buy their silence. He also suspected that Mark Felt was the Deep Throat source at the FBI, giving information about Watergate to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post, and before his death Felt admitted this was true. His main motivation was anger at Nixon for not being appointed FBI Director in place of J. Edgar Hoover, who had died in 1972. Instead, Nixon had appointed L. Patrick Gray Acting Director, not with instructions to pursue the investigation fully but rather to cover it up and destroy evidence. Unlike his remarks in this speech, Gray could not have possibly told Nixon that he was “proud” of the investigation for “of its thoroughness and that he could defend it with enthusiasm before the committee.”
Nixon said that only the newspapers were claiming that he was involved in a cover up of Watergate and related events, but in fact he had ordered it and managing it from day-to-day. Then he lied again by asserting that Dean informed him only on March 9, 1973 that there was a cover up in place, and as a result he ordered “an intensive effort of my own to get the facts and to get the facts out. Whatever the facts might be, I wanted the White House to be the first to make them public.” Nothing could be further from the truth, and indeed the exact opposite was the case. He even tried to blame Dean for concealing this information from him, when in reality Dean felt like he was being set up to take the blame for Watergate and agreed to testify to the Senate about it.
If possible, Nixon’s next lie was even more outrageous and breathtaking, since he now claimed that he had turned to John Ehrlichman to give him a full report “while also making independent inquiries of my own.” Ehrlichman had not only been involved in the cover up from the start, but in organizing the original break-in at Watergate and financing other illegal operations by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). Although it was true that a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, had been appointed to investigate, Nixon also continued to lie and cover up with the investigators from this office, and finally ordered Cox fired in 1974. He was getting too close to the truth that Nixon had been behind Watergate and the entire cover up from the start. In this speech, though, he repeatedly asserted that “my effort throughout has been to discover the facts — and to lay those facts before the appropriate law enforcement authorities so that justice could be done and the guilty dealt with.”
Nixon always refused to turn over the White House tapes to Congress or the special prosecutor, right up to the last moment in 1974 when he was ordered to do so by a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court. He did so, very reluctantly, and then resigned rather than facing impeachment. For two years before that, he claimed that they were classified and protected under the doctrine of executive privilege and the need to keep discussions confidential, particularly in foreign affairs. Nixon always said that president had to “be able to talk openly and candidly with his advisers about issues and individuals. This kind of frank discussion is only possible when those who take part in it know that what they say is in strictest confidence.” In due course, when some of the tapes became public in 1974, they revealed that Nixon had ordered the Watergate break in and cover up, and many similar actions from the time he took office in 1969. They also revealed him making numerous racist and anti-Semitic remarks, although these were kept secret for decades after his resignation.
The rest of the speech also fits the familiar pattern of discourse found in the Clinton and Reagan addresses. To most of us, Watergate has come to mean not just a burglary and bugging of party headquarters but a whole series of acts that either represent or appear to represent an abuse of trust. It has come to stand for excessive partisanship, for “enemy lists” for efforts to use the great institutions of Government for partisan political purposes. Nixon deplored the “abuses” in the 1972 election campaign, ignoring the fact that he had ordered them all, and indeed had always run his election campaigns that way going back to the 1940s and 1950s. When he said that “practices of that kind do not represent what I believe government should be, or what I believe politics should be,” he was lying again because they characterized his entire career. Nixon then played one of his favorite cards by stating that he had committed some very ruthless acts against those he regarded as a threat to the internal security of the country, “who would subvert or overthrow it by unlawful means.” He went on to criticize the protests of the 1960s for violating the law in the name of some “higher morality,” and again blamed the media for encouraging them. In this atmosphere of violence, protests and riots, some of his supporters may have become “overzealous,” but they should not be jailed because of it. Like Reagan and Clinton, he went on to condemn the “backward-looking obsession” with the scandal that was distracting the nation and causing “neglect matters of far greater importance to all of the American people.” Both foreign and domestic policy were being neglected because of Watergate, so the administration should now be left alone and permitted “to get on with the jobs that need to be done for you.” Unfortunately for Nixon, however, Congress and the courts refused to drop the issue and move on, and it finally ended his presidency.
Of all three scandals, Iran-Contra was probably the most serious, even though Ronald Reagan did not face the real threat of resignation or impeachment like Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. Reagan omitted or denied a great deal of information about the real U.S. government policies in the Middle East and Central America, and also lied about his knowledge of these. Like Nixon, he based his appeal to the public at least partially on national security grounds, and also claimed lack of knowledge about what had really been happening. Richard Nixon lied blatantly and repeatedly about Watergate and like Reagan tried to make lower level officials take all the blame, and indeed his Second Watergate Speech was one of the most dishonest even given by any American president. In his case, though, the White House taping system proved that the worst allegations were all true, and more than the public ever knew at the time. In comparison to these scandals, the Clinton affair seems petty, involving only his personal failings and dysfunctions rather the classic high crimes and misdemeanors of Nixon and Reagan. Ironically, though, only he was actually impeached — for lying about his sex life — although Nixon certainly would have been removed from office had he not resigned.
Clinton, B. (1998). Monica Lewinsky Speech.
Nixon, R. (1973). Second Watergate Speech.
Reagan, R. (1987). Iran-Contra Speech.