"The 'Law' and 'the Constitution'?: Argumentation, Justification, and the Impeachment of a U.S. President"

Pamela Morgan

The impeachment trial of U.S. President Bill Clinton in the U.S. Senate has left a trail of highly politicized language behind it. In fact, it has become increasingly clear that the issues that underlie the events are indeed ideological rather than purely political, legal, or moral, despite the overt claims of the prosecutors--hard-line Republican opponents of moderate Democrat Clinton. The attempts to disguise this ideological motivation behind constitutional and legal language provide an important case study of language, ideology, representation, and misrepresentation.

The ideological framework of the Republican argumentation is based on a very conservative interpretation of American cultural (including political, legal, and religious) traditions and on an overtly oppositional stance both to the Democratic party and to the person of President Clinton. The Republicans' need both to express this framework--in order to reassure their core constituency and to maintain Republican party unity--and also to reduce explicit expression--especially for more moderate Republicans and increasingly in the Senate, where bipartisanship is of great importance to the Senators of both parties--has forced Republicans to walk a fine linguistic line.

Therefore, the language of the impeachment process--especially that of the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives (several of whom have gone on to present the case against Clinton in the Senate)--can be usefully analyzed using several linguistics-based and cognitive-based approaches. These include frames of self-presentation and other cultural cognitive models, including metaphor (e.g., Morgan 1997, Morgan 1998, G. Lakoff 1996, Lakoff and Johnson 1980); other approaches to semantics (e.g., Fillmore 1982, 1985; Van Dijk 1995); and pragmatics, including speech acts (e.g., R. Lakoff 1990; Wilson 1990).

At the present time, the linguistic details of this ideological expression are still unfolding, and the analysis is therefore necessarily incomplete. However, the outline of the situation is clear.


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