Ronald Reagan's Apology Analysis About Illegal Contra Group Funding in Nicaragua

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On March 4, 1987, the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, made a speech from the oval office addressing his role in a scandal involving the illegal funding of an insurgent group in Nicaragua. The administration had covertly sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. The media’s narrative and general public opinion fixated on the administration's lack of transparency and overall silence on the issue. The President addressed the issue in a speech that opened with an effort to clarify that his reluctance to provide the public with commentary was a consequence not knowing the full story. Three months prior, the President had appointed a special counsel to investigate the matter. At the beginning of his speech, President Reagan emphasizes that it was appropriate and responsible to wait until the full truth was uncovered by the special counsel before he addressed the Nation. He does this with a familiar tone: “you deserve the truth”. He uses “you” as the pronoun to address the entire nation. This develops a tone of intimacy with the audience as if he was talking to an individual American rather than the nation as a whole. In essence, he is framing his silence as a service to the American people, contrasting the prevalent narrative that his silence was evidence of his guilt and part of a cover-up. By claiming that the silent interim was spent seeking the “truth”, Reagan promotes his credibility (ethos) and attempts to draw a sympathetic response (pathos). He institutes pathos by emphasizing his righteousness and good intentions to seek the truth through the special counsel he had appointed. Reagan underscores that he was only going to comment once he knew the facts: “I felt it was improper to come to you with sketchy reports, or possibly even erroneous statements”. This establishes credibility and develops an ethical line of argumentation. He then combines these two lines of argumentation of invoking pathos and ethos by citing a quotation from the report of the special counsel: “the Board is convinced that the President does indeed want the full story to be told.” This further underscores that the president is seeking an emotional sympathetic response from the audience and to galvanize trust in his favour. He then says “I’ve studied the Board’s report” in order to further his credibility and propagate a narrative that he is taking these findings seriously.

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The president then transitions into an apology and says, “I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration”. The President’s intention of this sentence is clear. He wants to project the idea that he is taking responsibility while at the same time deflecting evidence of particular wrongdoing elsewhere. Although he says he takes responsibility for his own actions, his real intention is to set up possible guilt of others in the latter part of the sentence. What he really means is that he takes responsibility for the actions of others within his administration. The insinuation, which is later cemented further, is that members of his administration are to blame, whose actions he did not control. He underscores this notion by saying “as angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities”. This sentence illustrates a two-fold strategy in the President’s apology. He wants to placate people who perceived him as cagey and unwilling to accept responsibility by asserting that he was, in fact, assuming responsibility. At the same time, he distances himself from any personal wrongdoing that led to the scandal.

The President then addresses a claim he had made in November of 1986 regarding the scandal. At that point, the President had denied one of the allegations against him, namely that he pursued a policy of trading arms for hostages. The investigation found that the trading of arms for hostages indeed happened and was at the core of the scandal. The President said “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” In this instance, the President assumes responsibility and displays regret without conceding that his statement in November of 1986 was a lie. He then pivots to using pathos in order to justify his actions, saying “I let my personal concern for the hostages spill over into the geopolitical strategy of reaching out to Iran. I asked so many questions about the hostages’ welfare that I didn’t ask enough about the specifics of the total Iran plan.” This begets sympathy with the audience. The President frames this particular display of lack of judgement as a consequence of his good intentions and concern for the hostages.

Reagan ends his speech with a series of sentences, all beginning with “you”: “You know, by the time you reach my age, you’ve made plenty of mistakes... You put things in perspective. You pull your energies together. You change. You go forward.” He clearly deploys the technique of “Anaphora” by repeating the same word at the beginning of successive phrases. This achieves three main objectives. Firstly, it draws people in by equating Reagan’s actions to what “you” might have done. He could have said “I will change. I will go forward” but rather he chooses the word “you” to suggest it could have been anyone who found himself in his predicament. Secondly, it emphasizes the path forward, to move beyond any mistakes, to focus on the future, and thereby deflects from any desire to dwell on the incidents that led to the scandal. Ending his speech with an emphasis on the future serves to shift the narrative away from the past and any wrongdoings by the President or his administration. Lastly, the use of the pronoun “you” encourages the audience to empathize with the President. It forces the audience to ask itself if they might have made similar mistakes and how they would have dealt with it. The impact of Reagan’s actions far out outstripped the bounds of domestic politics. America’s international relations were irrevocably damaged and the reputation of Governmental institutions ravaged.

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