One common criticism of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was that she lacked ethos, she simply couldn’t convince voters of her credibility and good character. In modern televised politics success is often determined not by what a politician says, but how their message is delivered. Delivery, visual rhetoric, identity and ethos go hand in hand, as, the way a rhetor presents themselves visually has a large influence on how their character is perceived and whether they appeal to voters.
Clinton has a strong professional ethos; she is celebrated by her colleagues and was certainly experientially over qualified to be President of the United States. Clinton has served many roles including First Lady and New York State Senator. As Secretary of State, Clinton navigated sensitive matters in the Middle East, and thus has unprecedented experience in diplomacy. Clinton’s professional ethos, however, was simply was not enough to convince swing state voters that she was a good candidate. Thus, the problem seemed to be with Clinton’s soft ethos (The Triple Bind), or, her public identity as a credible and trustworthy candidate.
Clinton’s professional ethos begins with the fact that she has been a public servant for many years and thus has learned to compromise to produce results. Clinton’s identity and ethos has evolved to encompass many different types of constituents, from Arkansas to New York. Since Hillary’s breakout graduation speech at Wellesley College, Clinton’s political identity has shifted, and nonzomo explains that:
“Her rhetoric has been molded to fit her environment and her audiences”
Many voters, however, view Clinton’s shifting ideals as a negative identity trait, and believe this proves that she is untrustworthy, which takes away from her ethos as a credible candidate. Clinton’s credibility and political persona have been attacked constantly in the media, in the “Hating Hillary” blog post, Professor Hayden examines how Clinton was first criticized for not fitting the female gender roles expected of a governor’s wife and first lady. Clinton’s shift of identity, then, is actually a survival mechanism to fit into politics as a female outsider.
This Frontline video examines the first time that Clinton’s public identity shifted, mostly visually, after Bill lost his reelection campaign for Arkansas governor. In 1979, Hillary went from having darker blonde curly hair, pronounced glasses, and light makeup to having light blonde hair, contacts, and eyeshadow. Thus, Clinton sacrificed her identity visually to deliver a message to voters about her conformity to traditional gender roles, in order to create a more positive ethos for herself and her husband
Clinton’s 1979 success with visual rhetoric influenced her to continue delivering messages through fashion. Clinton has used visual rhetoric to create a more credible and trustworthy ethos several times. Clinton is well aware that in American politics, female candidates are not only expected to be both good leaders and good women, but they are also expected to dress professionally and look a certain way, namely attractive and polished.
In 1995, Clinton gave her famous “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” speech. Clinton focused on her gender and her role as First Lady to provide ethos as a voice for women internationally.
Notably, buffington36 also examines Clinton’s use of visual rhetoric to deliver a message with her choice of outfit:
“In her speech in Beijing she wears light pink–a color associated with charm, politeness, sensitivity, tenderness, and femininity.”
Additionally, while maintaining her gendered look, in the 1996 election cycle, Clinton wished to further take on the public identity of supportive spouse and thus in a speech at Keene State in New Hampshire relied on ethos drawn from her husband’s career, solidifying her public identity of First Lady.
In the 2016 election cycle, Clinton notably toned down her public wearing of expensive jewelry because her campaign wanted to draw attention away from her public identity as a wealthy former First Lady. Clinton shifted to wearing small hoop earrings, a small chain and a bracelet that contains pictures of her granddaughter Charlotte. It is clear that Clinton used jewelry as visual rhetoric to deliver a message to voters, specifically to communicate that she encompasses the identity of the relatable grandmother, which automatically gives her a trustworthy ethos. In American culture, who doesn’t trust their grandmother?
Clinton also used visual rhetoric to send a message in the first Presidential Debate. In her live Tweet of the debate, juliacanzoneri explains her positive reaction to Hillary’s red pantsuit, which communicated Clinton’s identity as a powerful candidate for the presidency.
Clinton’s character traits that made up her public identity were often called into question during the 2016 election. Even members of the Democratic Party had issues with Clinton’s candidacy. Sarah Parente examined the fact that Clinton’s identity as a liberal politician was called into question after the primaries by Bernie supporters who actively created a social media narrative using memes which focused on Clinton’s alleged corruption and untrustworthiness.
After the primaries, to unite the Democratic party behind Clinton, her campaign adopted the slogan “Stronger Together” to address more liberal voters’ concerns that she was too conservative, and, to solidify her liberal identity. This rhetoric of inclusion included ethos driven appeals that she was a credible candidate for working class Americans, a tactic employed by other female politicians, like Shirley Chisholm in the 1970’s.
To combat criticisms on her identity from both Republicans and Democrats, Clinton’s campaign directly addressed the issue of untrustworthiness and created a video that draws on the credibility and diversity of various Clinton supporters to add to her ethos.
In addition, Clinton appeared in Humans of New York, which combines photography and personal stories to humanize interviewees. In this piece Clinton allowed herself to share anecdotes which showed the more vulnerable parts of her identity while visually allowing herself to be caught off guard by the camera. This delivered a message to voters that Hillary was not simply an established public servant, but also a human being, giving her an ethos that transcended the scandals of her political career.
After her devastating loss in this past election, Clinton has continued to maintain a dignified public identity. During her concession speech, many voters felt that her delivery and visual rhetoric were better than ever. Adelakolenovic responded positively to Clinton’s speech, explaining:
” I think she achieved a more personable persona in this speech than any other speech of hers that I’ve watched.”
Post election Clinton has also notably shifted her rhetoric to focus on unity. Visually, she wears purple, delivering a message that her values transcend partisan lines. Indeed, Clinton continues to believe in the values she stood for and urges voters to continue to fight for progressive values.
Will there be a revisionist history with regards to Hillary Clinton and her bid for the presidency? Will history be kind or cruel?
Because Clinton is adept at visual rhetoric, I believe her candidacy will be remembered fondly, despite her loss. Perhaps female politicians in the future will learn from Clinton’s legacy and continue to use visual rhetoric to deliver messages of a credible positive ethos and identity.
Feature Image via Google Images