By Gianluca D’Elia
Whether it is Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, or the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972 that eventually became Watergate, political scandals can make fascinating stories — and they may have more in common than people think.
David Dewberry, a professor of
communication, published The American Political Scandal: Free Speech, Public Discourse and Democracy in August 2015, providing an in-depth analysis of rhetoric in political scandals, and how they seem to play out the same way every time.
“I’m interested in when things go bad and how we deal with and respond to them, especially in politics,” he said. “I’m trained as a rhetorician, and my major theoretical interest is in cultural myths and how people use them to make sense of their lives and worlds. I was interested in how people made sense of things gone wrong in politics.”
Dewberry’s interest in “political rhetoric and the communications aspect of when things go wrong” led him to discover that his arguments could best be supported by political scandals, and he then began collecting books on different scandals.
“In some aspects, they’re really great stories in and of themselves,” he said.
In The American Political Scandal, Dewberry examines five political scandals: Watergate, Teapot Dome, Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and Bridgegate.
“Watergate was an easy choice — we still use the suffix -gate to indicate that something is scandal,” Dewberry said. “If you ask anybody to name a scandal, Watergate tops the list. If you were to ask people to name a scandal before Watergate happened, they’d say Teapot Dome. So those were easy choices. I picked the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal because of the impeachment. No matter what he did, he was impeached. That’s significant.”
Initially, Dewberry had only used those three scandals, but a former professor of his suggested that he write about Iran-Contra, a scandal that is still being dealt with now.
“We still don’t know what really happened there,” Dewberry said.
Dewberry argues that political scandals follow a similar narrative of rhetoric and media coverage instead of focusing on the actual ethics violation or political corruption.
In The American Political Scandal, Dewberry says the scandals he examined “begin in a political context of relative prosperity that is shattered by the press’s publicity of misconduct.” Politicians then take part in “partisan rhetoric” that makes charges sound more like “politically inspired attacks.”
Dewberry said evidence and testimonies strengthen public attention to the scandal, but public attention then decreases as the scandal goes to court and receives less news coverage. Typically, the scandal ends with a confirmation of wrongdoing.
Although major political scandals have followed a similar narrative pattern, Dewberry says they are still full of surprises.
“When Bill Clinton infamously said, ‘I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,’ he said that because he forgot her name,” Dewberry said. “Clinton, who remembers everyone’s name, forgot the woman’s name who caused him to be impeached. Hilarious.”
Dewberry anticipates that future scandals will continue to follow the narrative he describes in The American Political Scandal.
“The book was done when Bridgegate happened,” Dewberry recalled. His editor wanted that subject to be added to the book, which played out in the same way as the others.
“[Scandals] are one of the primary ways Americans judge politics,” Dewberry said. “Scandals are great stories. We can talk about the personal actions of politicians because we know more about personal actions than foreign policy.”