Political Image Repair
A popular context for image repair research is politics. Politicians— particularly those at higher levels of office—are newsworthy in general. When they are accused of wrongdoing, interest in them increases substantially. In chapter 3, I compared image repair by an actor with corporate and political image repair (Benoit, 1997). Politics is highly partisan, so politicians have opponents who often promulgate or repeat attacks. Opponents may work to sustain suspicions against a politician. Politicians daily make decisions that influence the lives of constituents. The image repair strategies are the same across domains, but nevertheless there are important contextual differences in image repair. This chapter does not attempt to provide an exhaustive review of this literature but to illustrate the research published in this area.
The first study to articulate and apply image repair theory investigated President Reagan's messages on the Iran-Contra affair (Benoit, Gullifor, & Panici, 1991). The President was accused of trading arms for hostages in Iran and funneling some of the proceeds to support the Contras in Nicaragua. The analysis examined 11 of Reagan's messages to look for patterns over time. His use of denial tended to shift from denying that he traded arms for hostages to denying that he diverted money to the Contras. His use of differentiation shifted as well. Initially he argued that the weapons were defensive rather than offensive; later he argued that he had negotiated with moderates rather than extremists in Iran. After the Tower Commission issued its report, the president he admitted that he was wrong and announced corrective action. At that point his popularity began to rebound.
Kennedy and Benoit (1997) investigated image repair by Newt Gingrich. He signed a book deal with HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch, with a $4.5 million advance. Not only was this a huge advance, but legislation was pending before Congress that affected Fox Television, also owned by Murdoch. Gingrich denied that accepting the advance was wrong, bolstered his reputation, attacked his accusers (Democrats and the media), and implemented corrective action by declining the advance. Important questions were raised by this defense: Why return the advance if it was not wrong? If it was wrong to take the advance, why deny it was wrong and why not apologize for a mistake? This defense is not evaluated as particularly effective.
Judge Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court was threatened when Professor Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. Benoit and Nill (1998a) found that Thomas used three image repair strategies: he denied the charge, he bolstered his reputation, and he attacked his accusers. He wisely did not attack Hill; other Republicans were doing that for him. To attack her could have created an impression that she had been his victim earlier. Instead, he attacked the senators questioning his nomination, especially Democrats. He suggested that he was being lynched, a particularly vivid image. He succeeded in the nomination, becoming a Supreme Court justice.
President Bill Clinton's inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky has been studied (Blaney & Benoit, 2001; Kramer & Olson, 2002). Kenneth Starr, who led the investigation of President Clinton, came under fire for engaging in a vendetta against the president. Starr offered image repair on the television program 20/20 (Benoit & McHale, 1999). He denied wrongdoing and bolstered his image. His denials were evaluated as ineffectual and his disapproval rating was essentially unchanged after his defense.
Suspicions arose when Congressman Gary Condit was apparently less than cooperative with police investigating the disappearance of his intern Chandra Levy. He was also accused of having an affair with her. In an interview with Connie Chung on Prime Time he denied wrongdoing (complicity in her disappearance, not cooperating with policy). However, when confronted with contradictory evidence (e.g., after he denied that she had called him on April 24, her phone records showed several such calls), he shifted to differentiation. This was not an effective defense (Len-Rios & Benoit, 2004).
In 2003 and 2004, President Bush was attacked repeatedly, particularly by Democrats during the presidential primary campaign, for mistakes in the war on terrorism in general and in invading Iraq for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in particular. The president held a nationally televised press conference in April 2004 to respond to these accusations (Benoit, 2006a). He relied mainly on three main strategies: transcendence (Hussein was a threat and Iraqis deserve freedom), bolstering (he was compassionate), and denial (I
made no mistakes). He also used defeasibility (perhaps WMDs had not been found because Hussein hid them). Although many continued to support the president, his discourse did not help repair his image with others. For example, his secretary of state had declared that we knew where the WMDs were; obviously at least some mistakes had been made. The ideas that Hussein was evil and that the Iraqi people deserve freedom do not justify an invasion (other leaders are evil and their people deserve freedom, too).
President Bush appeared on Meet the Press in 2004 to defend against two accusations: that the war in Iraq was unjustified and the economy was in trouble (Benoit, 2006b). He used transcendence, characterizing himself as a “war president,” suggesting that his special circumstances excused his behavior. He denied mistakes, argued for defeasibility (Hussein may have hidden WMDs), and used transcendence (Hussein was dangerous). On the economy, he claimed corrective action (recent actions would improve the economy) and defeasibility (he had inherited a bad economy). His denials were ineffectual and, although circumstances might have been beyond his control (defeasibility), it was a mistake for a president to make this argument: People want to believe the president is in charge of events.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) botched the recovery after Hurricane Katrina. President Bush gave a speech to repair his image (Benoit & Henson, 2009). He used bolstering (his compassion), defeasibility (Katrina was a terrible natural disaster), and corrective action (recounting federal aid efforts). However, no justification was presented for the slow response (although we did not know exactly where Katrina would make landfall, we could have done a better job preparing for it in the days before it hit).
Kaylor (2011) examined discourse from Democratic political candidates during the 2004 and 2008 campaigns. This rhetoric attempted to repair the image of the Democratic Party from the belief that it was not concerned with religion. Transcendence was employed to argue that separation of church and state justified the party's approach to religion. Democrats attacked accusers: Republicans and the media. The most extensive strategy used was corrective action, which took two forms: urging fellow Democrats to appeal directly to religious voters and including more religious discourse in their messages.
Hornes (2012) investigated the image repair discourse of six female politicians from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden who had been attacked for a variety of alleged acts of wrongdoing. Although differences occurred between the rhetors, they used attack accuser, denial,
defeasibility, bolstering, corrective action, and mortification. Five of the six resigned.
Image repair theory has been applied to many instances of political accusations and scandals. It has been used to understand messages in the United States and abroad, from politicians at various levels of government, and in different branches of government. This chapter will investigate two other instances of image repair in politics from Senator David Vitter and Representative Anthony Weiner.