HONORS 195: Rhetoric of Impeachment; Fall, 1999, John Dewey Honors Program, College of Arts & Sciences, University of Vermont
Alfred C. Snider, Edwin W. Lawrence Professor of Forensics

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James Carville:

Guard Dog of the White House


Stephen Schachterle


James Carville has been one of President Clinton’s most adamant supporters throughout the impeachment crisis. Carville is a veteran campaign strategist who headed Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and has advised him since the campaign. His harsh and sometimes wild criticisms of Clinton’s opponents have made Carville the rhetorical attack dog of the Democratic Party. The purpose of Carville’s attacks was to rally support for Clinton. Fighting for Clinton was both helpful to Carville’s career and financially beneficial for him. Carville used a few concise points that he presented in his aggressive partisan style to argue against Clinton’s critics. The media frequently covered Carville’s attacks because of their brevity and excessiveness. Carville skillfully used the media to his advantage. He plays an active role in personalizing political issues by attacking the character of his opponents. These personal assaults divert attention away from the issues themselves. However, questioning the character of those who are often running smear campaigns of their own can bring to light some the faults of Carville’s political adversaries.

Kenneth Burke suggested rhetoric could be analyzed using five elements, act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. Two of these five elements stand out from the rest as most crucial to the speaker’s rhetoric during the impeachment crisis (Nichols 1963). Agency and purpose were the most important facets of James Carville’s rhetoric. Carville’s purpose was to rally support for President Clinton while advancing his carrier and benefiting financially. The agencies he used to accomplish his purpose were several concise complaints against Independent Councilor, Kennith Starr, his aggressive rhetorical assault against Starr, Carville’s image, and the media which Carville used to bring his message to the American public.

James Carville’s chief priority has been to defend Bill Clinton since Carville became the chief campaign strategist for Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. In an interview with Katie Couric on Today, Carville asserts his motives:

…that man [Clinton] had been good to me, he’s good to my

family, he’s good to my country. He’s a friend of mine. He

got himself in a jam. I was proud that he called on me to help

him, and I’m glad that I was able to–to–help in some small

way (Carville 2/12/99).

Carville was entirely dedicated to his cause of defending Clinton. In this interview, he asserted his loyalty and willingness to help the President. Carville emphasized how "proud" he was to be working for his "friend" (Carville 2/12/99, Carville 1/6/99). A favorite analogy of his was to liken his dedication to the President to a war. He even "declared war" on Ken Starr (Carville on Meet the Press 1/25/1998). Carville contended that this steadfast loyalty stemmed from his personal relationship with Clinton. He makes his purpose very clear–to defend Bill Clinton.

Besides appearing on political talk shows, Carville wrote a book titled "…And the Horse He Rode in On"(1998) and went on a speaking tour called the "Education and Information Project." Both the book and the speaking tour where designed to rally support for the President. Carville stressed how well he treats his family. He points out Clinton’s good attendance record at his daughter’s piano practices, softball games, and ballet recitals. He notes that Clinton has been married to his wife for decades. He also credits the recent economic boom to Bill Clinton (Carville on Hard Ball 1/7/99). Most of his arguments in favor of the President center on personal relationships and the economy.

In his tireless fight to support the President, Carville focused on negative aspects of Clinton’s critics over the positive aspects of Clinton himself. In these assaults against Ken Starr and the right wing, Carville’s purpose was revealed. Bashing his political opponents dominated his books, speaking tour, and televised arguments. Carville opened his book"…And the Horse He Rode in On" with a half a page description of the President’s enemies as, ‘a motley band consisting primarily of perjuring partisan politicians. Strumpets, hags, bitter segregationists, hired guns for cigarette companies…bitter defeated pathetic rivals… gay bashers…" etc… (Carville 1998). Carville aims to weaken his opponent’s position and popularity in hope of leaving them without the support from the public they need to impeach the President. With attacks as wild and excessive as the one, which open his book, Carville could win few converts in the Senate or House. When he was not going after Starr, he often attacked the Republican leadership. He was not trying to win over Republican directly. He wanted to sway pubic opinion in favor of the President knowing that employment minded politicians could follow the public opinion polls. As a veteran campaign manager, he had plenty of experience slandering opponents. He ruthlessly held to this cause in what he wrote and said during the impeachment crisis.

In "All's Fair," Carville attempted to justify working for candidates whose policies he might not favor by likening himself to a lawyer defending a guilty client. This analogy holds true for how he measures his success as well. Carville, like a lawyer, gauges his success solely on the success of those he is working for. In the case of the impeachment trial, the value of his work was measured by Clinton’s public approval. To Carville, his goal of helping the President was one in the same with his goal to advance his own carrier as a political operative. It did not matter how many people he offended in Washington and around the country. As long as he helped Clinton’s public image, he was successful.

He views his success as a campaign strategist and his worth as a person on the success of the candidate. After a string of losses in the early 1980s, Carville "was scared he was a failure." His carrier turned around in 1986 when he helped to make Robert Casey the governor of Pennsylvania. He described the night after the victory as the "best night he has had so far on this planet" (Carville in Current Biography, 1993). In "All’s Fair," his book about the 1992 presidential campaign, he refers to moves Clinton made as moves "we" made. When he is describing the meeting where the campaign managers discus how to deal with a letter implying Clinton dodged the draft, Carville writes, "We weren’t hiding, we weren’t flinching. We had convictions and we’d had them for twenty-two years". Here Carville seemed to unite not only his and Clinton’s mutual cause but also he seemed to have adopted his convictions (Kinsley 1993). As a political operative, the other politicians would judge him by how well he defended the President. Carville makes no distinction between victory for his employers and a victory for himself. He carried this attitude throughout the impeachment crisis. His purpose was to aid the President, but at the same time, his purpose was to help himself.

Carville’s financial interests were closely linked to his desire to defend the President and advance his carrier. These financial interests motivated Carville to defend Clinton. Carville will not work for a Republican or a candidate with "racial appeal." However, with the exception of these two types of candidates, he admits that he does sell his services to the highest bidder. In this situation, he had to choose between a candidate he believed could sever the country well versus a weaker candidate who could pay him better, Carville admits he would work for the lesser candidate (Carville in All’s Fair 1994). In"All’s Fair,"he wrote that political consulting was a "job" for him, implying to some extent, he does it for the money. For writing that book, he and his wife (who co-wrote it) received a $900,000 advance, and in the ensuing speaker tour, they charged fees of up to $20,000 (Eillis 9/26/1994). By 1996, he could consistently charge $15,000 for a lecture and had become a millionaire (Turque 4/8/1996). The financial interests which motivated James Carville in the past, and the financial gains he has made by working for Clinton recently suggest money has played a role in his campaign against Starr.

Carville has frequently consulted politician’s abroad, which also suggests financial interests were of a high priority. Some of the politicians he worked for include Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroder, and Ehud Barak. He estimates he has done eighty percent of his most recent work in Latin America. There, he worked for the Panamanian, Ernesto Perez, who was formerly employed by Manuel Noreiga. He claimed he liked working in South America because he did not suffer from jet lag during visits (Stone 9/12/98). I assume the paycheck helped assuage any small amount of jet lag Carville might have experienced. Monetary concerns have motivated Carville to take jobs. This suggests they may have played a role in his aggressive defense of President Clinton.

The agency Carville used to defend the President and advance his own carrier was his powerful speaking abilities. Carville has the ability to dazzle audiences and overpower opponents. Interviewers frequently questioned Carville about Clinton’s sexual indiscretions. Carville would attempt to shift the focus of the questions from the President to Starr and the republicans as quickly as possible. He would answer the questions concerning the President in a brief and general manner and then move immediately to his favorite subject–bashing the "right wing conspirators". On HardBall, Chris Matthews’ questions Carville about the accusations that the President committed perjury. Carville responds:

Let me be very clear with that. What I said was--is this: You--what you have

is a case of a grown man acting foolish with a young woman and not wanting

people to know about it. You can't make it into anything more than that. And

that's all it is. The American people see through this. We have spent over $100

million investigating this President... (Carville 1/7/99).

Mathews’ had asked Carville to respond to the specific allegation that the President committed perjury. Carville avoided discussing whether the President "lied under oath" and avoided going into the question of how "sexual relations" were defined (although he did briefly earlier in the article). Instead, Carville states that Clinton was "acting foolish with a young women," which was a separate but related issue. The actual perjury charge was then downplayed to "not wanting people to know about," a far more vague and forgivable offense than lying under oath to the Senate. Then, after three short sentences he started to rail on how much the investigation has cost (HardBall 1/7/1999).

Matthews’ cut him off Carville at "this President". He Mathews tried to turn the subject back on perjury and said, "under oath."

Carville responded, "...going to subpoena every tax return and everything else. You know what?"

Matthews’ interrupted again, "He did it under oath, though" (Hard Ball 1/7/99).

And Carville replied:

You go--he did--under--you know what? You know--hey, first of

all, he was not--he was not--the--the articles of impeachment--even

the House said that he didn't do it in the Paula Jones case. He's not

impeached by this. Only--in--and the thing--what he said--there's

three things here about this, too (Carville 1/7/99).

Matthews’ tried three times to get Carville to answer questions about the impeachment and he would not do it. First, he goes into discussing Ken Starr’s subpoenas. Stumbling over his words, he mentions "under," but refuses to spit out the full phrase "under oath," and then he is entirely off the subject and they never return to it. If Mathews had persisted, Caville would have fought him over the subject of conversation for the entire show, which would not make for good television. Carville frequently avoided answering questions concerning Clinton by giving vague responses, stuttering, mumbling, and shifting the topic. This effective strategy allowed him to avoid acknowledging any of Clinton’s faults and helped him keep the spotlight on the Republicans.

After Carville shifted the focus of the debate from Clinton to Starr and the Republicans, he fired into what he will be most remembered for–his full-scale verbal attacks against the Republicans. His stuttering, inarticulate speech transformed into powerful dogmatic ranting, which cast Starr as the most hideous villain in American politics. In "…And the Horse He Rode in On" he declared, "there never been a prosecutor appointed as fiercely partisan as Starr. That bears some repeating: Never in History" (1998). He often repeated himself to emphasize a point. He also wrote Starr spewed media leaks to like the Exxon Valdez and was a media whore ("…And the Horse He Rode in On" 1998). In an interview with Bryant Gumble he referred to the Republicans who appointed Starr as conspirators, hacks, and thugs (1/28/99). He referred to "burring the hatchet in Ken Starr," and "cutting him[Starr] off at the knees" (Today 2/12/99 and Crossfire 12/13/96). Carville’s rhetoric was extreme and so emotional that it made him appear dedicated. This dedication gave credibility to his case. He became so inflamed over his dislike of Starr that it appeared genuine and it made his argument more convincing and Carville more charismatic. This charisma allowed him to achieve his purpose. He could help to convince those who had not sided with either Clinton or the Republicans to favor Clinton. He could also rally those who already supported the President. This undermined the Republican’s support and helped keep Clinton in the White House.

Many Americans grew tired of the two year Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Carville may have voiced some of the country’s dissatisfaction with it. Sixty-five percent of Americans believed that the Republicans were unfairly trying to weaken the President (Berke 1998). Many Americans might not have taken the standard of propriety in politics seriously enough to be offended by Carville. They could have been amused by his antics.

For all his slandering, James Carville rarely attacked the Republicans for what some have called their hypocrisy over issues of sexual misconduct. This restraint may be due to Carville’s avoidance of hypocrisy of himself. When this issue was raised, he confessed that we all make mistakes. When Mary Matalin first visited the Louisiana home of his family, she reported that his sister was more surprised that Matalin was over eighteen than she was a Republican (Spin Doctors in Love 1994). Or maybe, Carville leaves the realm of attacking an opponent for their sex life to Larry Flynt and Republican Congressional Representatives.

Carville appealed to the public by presenting himself as an average citizen. Along with his fiery style, his common man image made his arguments more persuasive. This persona was a form of identification. His rhetoric united him with his audience. He dressed plainly wearing the same Rugby shirt throughout the "War Room" a documentary on the 1992 campaign. On the cover of his book he appears in a denim shirt, jeans, and cowboy hat (Carville "…And the Horse he Rode in On"). He speaks in strong southern accent, which none of his siblings share (Current Biography Yearbook 1993). He used popular jargon. When justifying his defense of the President, Carville said, "I look to the playgrounds of Louisiana. You fool with a friend of mine and I’m going to fool back," (Meet the Press 2/14/99). This common man look made him appear more credible. He disassociated himself from the stereotypical smooth talking politician (he is anything but smooth talking). The polished educated style of most politicians is associated with intelligence but not honesty. Carville’s rustic look made him appear genuine. His style contrasted sharply with the self-righteous droning of the Republicans and he was more convincing because of it.

Carville framed his wild rhetoric around several points that illustrated problems with the Starr investigation. He stressed five main points he stressed. He argued Starr was hired in a Republican conspiracy, was partisan, leaked information to the press, used excessive amounts of taxpayer money, and that Starr’s legal tactics especially in subpoenaing witnesses were barbaric ("…And the Horse He Rode in On", Meet the Press 1/25/99, The Public Eye 1/28/99). He built his arguments around these points. He explored them in depth in his book and had them cut into single phrases that he could use in the short responses he gave to journalists. He successfully worked these arguments into his explosive rhetoric.

Carville was a master at compacting his points and his explosive style into catchy, sound bite friendly phrases. During the 1992 campaign, he would hound reporters to print stories that put Clinton into a favorable light or more frequently Bush in an unfavorable one. He fought the press over what he felt was their pro-Bush bias citing the presses’ coverage of the Jennifer Flowers scandal (The War Room 1993). Some Carvillisims that made their way into the mainstream media during the impeachment hearings were his declaration of war on Ken Starr, his description of Starr and "scuzzy," and "slimmy" and that Starr was running a "$40 million dollar sex investigation," (The Daily News 10/25/99, Washington Post 1/14/99, Carville on Meet the Press 8/17/1998). This type of Rhetoric was entertaining to the viewer. Journalists and television programmers knew how entertaining it was. Carville could bring in viewers and readers. He shaped his message to make it media friendly. His heavy coverage in the press got his message to the public. Since he intended to sway public opinion, this was crucial to the success of his rhetoric.

Carville was successful in dispersing his message. A Lexis-Nexis search for James Carville in the full text of a major newspapers brings up over a thousand hits and limiting the search to just his name in the title or leading paragraph brings up 372 in the last two years alone. In contrast, a search for Carville’s wife the Republican operative, Mary Matalin, in Lexis-Nexis brings up 46 hits (with the search limited to title and lead paragraph). Carville successfully gets his message to the general public through the political talk shows to the newspaper path. A large audience, many of which were swayed by this colorful personality, heard his message.

Once Carville's message reached the public, it was successful. James Carville influenced public opinion in favor of President Clinton. The President's approval ratings remained high. In September of 1998, Clinton's job approval ratings where at sixty-eight percent. Moreover, polls indicated that the majority of Americans were more upset at the Republicans for attacking Clinton than they were unhappy with Clinton's inappropriate behavior and for misleading the public and the Senate (Berke 1998). Did Carville play a role in maintaining Clinton's approval ratings and did that influence the Senates decision to allow Clinton to remain in office? I believe it did, as does the Independent Counselor, Ken Starr. He told reporters:

In terms of some public perception, there is no question that I think

there was an erosion, a significant erosion, in public confidence and,

as we said earlier, that found its way into the jury room…. It was

completely improper. It's one of the very sad legacies of this

administration that he would allow his surrogates . . . to wage war on

a law officer. Totally wrong. (Daily News 10/25/99)

In this case, Ken Starr's anger indicates his honestly. He expressed his discontent with Carville in October of 1999 after the impeachment hearings where long over. There was no point in spinning to reporters then. These were his honest feelings. He felt Carville influenced public opinion and that affected the Senators decision to allow Clinton to remain in office.

Again, Carville's analogy about his role as a political strategist and lawyer working for a guilty client has more truth than he had originally planed. He has influenced the come of a court case. His ability to put the spotlight on the Republicans, hit them aggressively with several complaints against Star, and appear as a dedicated servant of the President without the pretensions of many politicians worked to rally support for Bill Clinton. Carville was a persuasive, charismatic speaker. He helped persuade a public, that was largely tired of the Republican's campaign, to support the President. The Senators followed the public’s will and kept Clinton in office.

James Carville's rhetoric of personal slander campaigns caused divisions on personal levels, which is not conducive to effective leadership. It is important for our politicians to disagree. Without disagreement there would be no progress. Politicians must have different platforms for the voters and other politicians to be able to decide which option is best and for progress to occur. However, for these politicians to work together to lead the country, they must respect each other on a personal level. They must respect one and other's opinion to make the compromises necessary to pass legislation and uphold the rules of the country. What America had during the scandal was exactly the opposite--it politicians with extremely similar beliefs and personal animosity towards each other. They can not work together to govern under beliefs they agree on. James Carville's wild personal attacks added to the dislike between America's leaders and stifled needed change.

Carville's wild rhetoric also diverted attention away from issues. While the country watched him speak metaphorically about cutting Ken Starr off at the knees, and read"as with mosquitoes, horseflies and most blood sucking parasites, Ken Starr was spawned in stagnant waters"they could have missed some important issues (…And the Horse He Rode in On 1998). This kind of rhetoric focuses attention on the Carville show.

Conflicts between Carville's financial interests and his power in America pose a problem. Although Carville may not have been an elected official, he had the power to influence the public. He was a leader because he has such power over America. What happens in the event a great politician runs against a lesser politician with Carville on their side? Carville has already established he would work for the lesser candidate. With the power Carville wields, it is not unlikely the lesser politician could prevail. Carville's power could undermine the democratic process.

However given the realities of impeachment scandal, James Carville fought on the side which had best upheld the interests of the country. The Republicans and the forces of social conservatives would have gained a great deal of momentum had they been able to turn the country against Bill Clinton. They needed public approval and fought to change the public’s opinion in favor of their cause. The Republicans might been able to spark a backlash against Clinton caused a swing toward the political right wing. James Carville did not invent the politics of slander; he just used it. He was needed to counteract the attempts by his Republican counterparts many of whom are in the House of Representatives. They were using personal attacks, which were not founded in public issues and caused divisions on personal levels. Carville balanced the scales in the Democrat’s favor and did what was best for the country.

James Carville used his attack dog style to defend the President during the impeachment crisis. Carville’s purpose was to rally support for Clinton and thereby advancing his career and gaining financially. Carville is a gifted orator who blasted the Republicans with a several complaints against Starr. He used the media to take his message to the public. With his energetic rhetoric and his common man appeal, he helped maintain Clinton’s public image. Many Senators followed the public’s will and Clinton stayed in office. Carville’s personal attacks added to division within the Senate. Carville’s power over public perception could be a danger because he is driven by financial not ideological motives. However, Carville is only part of the problem not its cause. In the impeachment scandal, he helped to counteract the personal attacks made by Starr and the Republican Congressional Representatives.

Work Cited

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